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If It Wasn’t Flexible, It Would Just Be Called the “Work Arrangement”

By Wendy Cocke

It’s called a “flexible work arrangement” because it’s flexible. If it wasn’t flexible, it would just be called the “work arrangement.” I can’t count the number of times I have told someone this. Most people smile and nod when I say it, but a person’s lack of understanding of the term is the biggest obstacle to maintaining a flexible work arrangement.

Most often, when I ask people about what they want out of a flexible work arrangement, they give me a lot of requirements, but most of them bring up something that is not particularly flexible. This may be childcare, parent care, or a side hustle. The point is that they simply want to work reduced hours, or that they would prefer to have a non-traditional schedule… not a flexible schedule.

They may want to come in late, leave early, not work this day or that day, but they still want a predictable schedule. That is not a flexible work arrangement. A flexible work arrangement is one in which you can deliver what the company needs without a standard work schedule. This may mean that you spend part of your time working at home and part in the office, some time on the road and some at your normal location, or work fewer hours altogether. It simply means you want more flexibility.

The other misconception is that flexibility is required from both the employee and the company. While employers may flex some traditional terms, the need for the employee to deliver results will not change. The burden of flexibility belongs to the employee. (Yes, I know this isn’t a popular opinion).

In order to be successful, I suggest that you set up your life in such a way that you can be flexible. Just saying no to a project or task because it is not in your predefined schedule is not a way to be successful in a flexible work arrangement. If your children go to a childcare facility on the days you are scheduled to work, but not on the days you aren’t, you should have a plan in place in the event that you need to work on a non-scheduled day. If you have coverage at home for the hours you are away, you also need to have the option for coverage on the hours you would normally be at home, just in case you are needed longer.

You must understand that the company is responsible for getting the same amount of work done regardless of your own desires and obligations. It is up to you to explain to the company how they will not lose out in this arrangement. If they are going to lose by keeping you on board, they’ll find someone else and win without you.

Corporations are designed to take everything you give them and then ask for more. There is never such a thing as “enough”; the company will always ask for more. Therefore, it is up to you to set boundaries and to stick to them.

Since the time of the industrial revolution, corporations have depended on finding ways to get more out of their human capital to be successful.

“Do more with less.”

“Be more efficient.”

“Look for opportunities to be more lean.”

“Implement continuous improvement efforts.”

These are all concepts centered on a business’ need to get as much as possible from their employees. At a very fundamental level, this is because once an employee is hired, they become a fixed cost against the company’s bottom line, so the only way to improve their return on investment in human capital is to get more out of that employee.

This isn’t to say that businesses are bad; they just have a different goal than a person (or even the people who lead them). Results are critical for a successful business, and the most successful ones have leaders who know that supporting their employees is the number one way to drive business results. If you always keep this in mind, you will be better positioned to negotiate and maintain your boundaries.

It is not about how many hours you work, but what you deliver for the company that ultimately matters. Understanding what is important to the business and excelling in those areas is more critical than just showing up. If you do this correctly, most people won’t even know you are doing it unless you tell them. This doesn’t mean that you have to hide it, but it should never be an issue for your coworkers.

So, how do you establish healthy work-life boundaries, especially if you haven’t done so before? It is possible you may not have set appropriate boundaries at work yet, so adjusting from your current reality to your ideal state may take several steps.

Start by identifying your ideal work arrangement and see how far away it is from your current reality. Migrating to this ideal state will not happen overnight, but having a goal gives you something specific to work toward.

Everyone has a unique story, a specific reason to want more flexibility, but we all want to feel successful. Luckily, there isn’t a single definition of success, so you are allowed to define it for yourself. That’s the great thing about it: it is up to each of us to define. The power is yours.

Wendy Cocke

Wendy Cocke helps strengthen organizations through the development of people, processes, and best practices. As someone who moved up the corporate ladder in Fortune 500 companies on a part-time schedule, Wendy is an expert on Making Flex Work. Wendy can be reached at www.makingflexwork.com or wendy.anderson.cocke@gmail.com.