Want Flexibility? Just Ask.
One of my favorite Bible passages for navigating life is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…” These verses always remind me to trust in God’s timing and to let go of my own expectations. If I were to paraphrase it specifically for work, it might go like this: there is a time to press forward at work, and a time to lean back; a time to work overtime and a time to work part time… In the course of your career, you will experience many seasons. It is one thing to recognize that you need to adjust your work schedule, but quite another to get there.
If you’re very lucky, you work at a place that offers flexible work arrangements. Most women today are not that lucky. In fact, studies show that many simply quit their jobs when they are faced with a situation that demands major adjustments to their work schedule or location. It is possible that quitting could be the right thing for your season, and it could be exactly the choice God wants for you. But quitting is not your only choice.
If your workplace does not have an established policy or precedent for flexible work arrangements, there is no reason you can’t ask. And if you need to adjust your work, you absolutely must ask. First, you should ask because you have nothing to lose. One potentially-awkward conversation with your boss could make it possible for you to keep your job and make it work for your life and priorities. If your other option is quitting, then what does it hurt? Second, you should ask for the sake of your company and the women who work there. Companies have much to gain from retaining and supporting their female employees, but too many are stuck in the past. Your company’s culture will not change if no one asks it to. Your request is valuable even if it gets denied. If the company loses its talented female (and male) employees due to a lack of flexibility, it will eventually change. Simply by asking, you can make it easier on those who come after you.
A Family Crisis
When my own “leaning back” season came, I was at something of a high point in my career, serving as President of Global Corporate Services for a Fortune 500 Company (CBRE), and I was well-positioned to advance further. I had a terrific team and a boss I liked and respected. In short, work was going well. But my son Christian, then 17, was in crisis. I had known for several years that he was struggling emotionally and had turned to drug use, but because he was living with his father, there was little I could do beyond my fervent prayers and frequent phone calls. I prayed that God would work a miracle in his heart, and one day, after being arrested for the second time and even spending a night in jail, Christian’s heart began to soften ever so slightly. He asked to move back home with me. I said yes, but with conditions.
By that point, I had been thinking and praying for a long time about what I could do to help him turn his life around, and I felt that God was calling me to take some drastic steps. I knew that it would require significant time and energy from me, things that I couldn’t offer while keeping up my work schedule at the time. I was convinced that this was a pivotal point in Christian’s life, and that I needed to give him everything I could. I went to work the next day and asked to speak with my boss Mike Lafitte, and I didn’t beat around the bush. I filled him in on everything that was happening with Christian, and then laid out the options as I saw them: “I can quit, or I can leave at 2:30 every afternoon to pick up my son from school and work out of my car or house for the rest of the day. I need to do that for at least the next several months.”
A Moment of Truth
Even as I said those words, I didn’t know how things would turn out. I had a good relationship with my boss, and I knew the company valued me as an employee, but it was still terribly frightening. There was a real possibility that I could have lost my job in the course of that conversation. I was fully convinced though that this is where God was directing my steps. I was prepared to do anything at that point to try to help heal my son’s heart and point him towards God.
In actuality, I didn’t have to face that choice, because my boss, and my company were incredibly supportive, even allowing me to take a ten-week sabbatical later that year to see Christian through the summer and off to college. My son’s life didn’t turn around right away. But after several years and many special people pouring into him, he gave his life to Christ. Today, Christian works with an inner city children’s ministry for Antioch Church in Waco, Texas. I can’t and don’t take credit for any of it, but I do believe that God used me along with others in that time to help work a miracle in Christian’s heart.
After my sabbatical, I returned to work refreshed and energized. It was hard to have that first conversation about stepping back, but I will always be glad that I did.
Are you ready to have that conversation with your boss?
Get mentally prepared.
Before you sit down with your boss, you need to think through carefully and practically what exactly it is that you need and what options might work for you, so that you can be prepared to discuss them. You’ll need to identify exactly what kind of changes you need to make, and how soon they will be implemented. In my situation, there was an immediate need, but if you have some lead time, it’s best to start having those conversations with your boss as far in advance as possible, so that they have enough time to plan any necessary personnel shifts. For your own sake, you need to decide going in whether you are prepared to quit if your request isn’t granted, and if so, how long you can give them to find a replacement. You don’t want to walk into a meeting making threats, simply be open about the reality of your situation, whatever it is.
How much or how little detail about your situation you share is really a matter of personal preference. For me, I had worked with my boss Mike for many years, I knew that he shared my faith and my priorities around family, and so I felt very comfortable sharing everything that was happening at the time. You may not have that kind of relationship with your boss, and that’s okay. You need to share enough so that they get a realistic sense of the situation, but no more than that. So, it’s enough to say that you need to work afternoons from home because your elderly mother has dementia and has to have someone with her at all times. You don’t need to go into the specifics of her care or your mixed emotions about the situation.
Pave the way.
Your work and work habits impact other people in the office, and any major change you make is likely to be disruptive in some way. You can minimize that disruption by preparing the way in advance.
Learn to delegate effectively. If you are in a managerial role, give members of your team opportunities to take on “stretch assignments” that will prepare them to step in for you if and when the time comes. Keep good records and make sure that your team understands how to find information when they need it. Communicate clearly and often so that everyone knows what your plans and expectations are.
Make it easy for your boss to say “yes.”
Be the very best employee you can be. I cannot overemphasize this enough. The better you are at your job, the more reliable and committed you have shown yourself to be over time, the more successful you are likely to be when you ask for flexibility. Additionally, have a clear plan prepared for your time away. Propose what your working hours/locations will be, who can step in for you if necessary, and how you will communicate with your boss and teammates. When I took my sabbatical, I had already been preparing a successor to eventually step into my role. I saw the ten weeks as a good opportunity for him to get some experience and perspective “steering the ship,” and told the company as much.
When I took time away, I knew it was temporary, and I was able to give the company a time frame. If you are looking to make a more permanent change and you’re concerned that there isn’t much precedent, you can try offering a trial period. Lay out what your ideal schedule would be, and say something like “I know my job and I do it well, I’m committed to this company and I want to make it work, give me three months to show you that it can.”
If you are experiencing or soon may experience a season when you need to “lean back” at your job, it might not be comfortable, but know that you are not alone and this is not the end of your career. Every career has seasons, and many emerged from a “leaning back” season stronger and more fulfilled. If you find yourself approaching such a time in your life, start laying the groundwork for the adjustments your situation will require. The more thoughtful your approach and more dedicated your service the more likely you are to smooth your transition, not only away from your job, but also on your return.