Understanding how to approach your employer about flexible work

by Liz Benson

As a working parent, there will be times when your work commitments and your family commitments clash. It’s inevitable. Sometimes it’s a short-term situation and other times it’s an ongoing requirement.

As an employee, flexible working conditions can help you optimise your work performance while still attending to the needs of your family.

The first challenge when talking about flexible work is that it means different things to different people.  Ultimately it is about being flexible from both perspectives, as the employee and as the employer. It’s important to keep that top of mind while you work together to achieve an outcome that works for both parties.

When asking for flexible work conditions, the key is to understand what is business-critical for your employer’s business, so you can address that upfront while asking for what you need.

In many professions, there is now a body of research that shows that flexibility at work is generally seen as good for business.

Here are some of the things to keep in mind when asking for flexible working arrangements:

Understand your rights

If you’ve worked for your employer for 12 months or more, you’re legally entitled to ask for flexible working hours. This means that your employer needs to consider your request, not that they are required to agree to it. You can make it easier for them to agree by:

  • making it clear what you are asking for and why it is important to you
  • suggesting review dates to ensure the situation is working for both parties. This also shows that you are flexible in return and keen to ensure the situation works for everyone
  • explaining how you plan to manage the situation to ensure it runs smoothly. For example, if you have very small children and are asking to work at home several days a week, who will be looking after the children while you work? How will you take calls from clients and colleagues professionally? Do you plan to work full days at home or do you need to consider reduced hours? Explaining the variables makes it easy for your employer to understand the circumstances and how it will work for them as well as you.

Make your request in writing (certainly flag it before submission or follow up verbally as well) so that your request is clear.

Your employer will need to respond to your request within 21 days and can only refuse your request on ‘reasonable business grounds’. These can vary but might include reasons such as: untenably-high costs of the new working arrangements; no capacity to change the working arrangements of other employees to accommodate your new working arrangements; or your new working arrangements would have a significant negative impact on efficiency, productivity, or customer service.[1]

Know what you want

Due to the varied nature of flexibility, before you ask your employer to accommodate your needs, make sure you know exactly what kind of flexibility you’re looking for. Some examples include:

  • flexible working hours
  • part-time work or job sharing
  • time in lieu
  • compressed working weeks
  • telecommuting
  • purchasing additional leave.

Know your business’s policies

Most businesses have policies around flexible working. Understanding the policies that are already in place lets you frame your request around that. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Does your business have the tools already in place that you would need in order to work the way you would like to?
  • Are there success stories in your organisation you can leverage as examples?
  • Have you spoken to any colleagues that already have flexible arrangements in place to get insights and learnings?

If your needs fall outside the written policies, it doesn’t necessarily mean your request is doomed. You will need to think about how to frame it differently so it’s clear that your needs and the business’s needs can both be met.

Be prepared to negotiate

Your employer is more likely to grant a request for flexibility if you’ve done your homework and you have some creative ideas regarding how to get your work done in a way that maintains productivity for the business. This may mean you need to be open to alternative ideas and negotiating with your employer.

Get help if you need it

If you’re not comfortable talking directly to your employer about your need for flexibility, you can request that a representative accompanies you to any discussions.

It’s useful to know that employers are generally obliged to make flexible arrangements work. If your employer is unreasonable or refuses your request without good reason, you may be able to take your request to the Fair Work Commission. Before doing that, it’s important to make sure you have a valid case. You can find more information on the Fair Work Commission’s website.

If you’re not covered by an award, you can’t take your dispute to the Fair Work Commission but you could seek legal advice about the possibility of other causes of action against your employer such as an adverse action claim or discrimination claim.

It is important to remember that your request for flexibility will have a better chance of success if you’ve considered the needs of the business and you can demonstrate how your work will be done. In many cases, working parents with flexible conditions can be even more productive than other team members because of the high motivation to get their work done so they can focus on their family outside of work.[2]

Flexible work is the future of business in Australia. Whether you’re following a well-worn path in your organisation or blazing a trail, it is absolutely possible to remain a high performer while gaining flexibility if it is approached in the right way.