These days, an increasing number of employers support family-friendly working arrangements. Flexibility can take many forms, so how do you know the best approach for you and your family?
Dad-of-two Blake Woodward shares his experience of returning to work after parental leave and the thought process behind his flexible working decisions. Here, he offers advice to other parents looking to achieve successful flexibility.
Following the birth of our second child – a daughter called Michaela – I was fortunate to be able to take seven glorious weeks of parental leave to embrace the joy of becoming a new dad again, care for my wife as she recovered, and to take the time to settle into becoming a family of four.
I work as a management consultant for a company that provides very progressive parental leave and flexible working options. These include both formal and ad hoc options ranging from working remotely and/or outside standard hours, to part-time, job sharing and more.
Before taking parental leave last June, my boss asked me what flexible working arrangements I wanted when I returned. It actually caught me off guard: What type of arrangements would I actually need? And how can I tell that far in advance? Thankfully, he told me to think about it and get back to him when I returned.
I was hesitant to give an answer because when my first child was born, I ended up changing my flexible arrangements every few months as his needs changed over time. Michaela’s needs will no doubt differ, so my only expectation this time around is that my flexible arrangements will need to shift over time.
Returning to work after parental leave
With my first child, I found working non-standard hours most useful during the early months. Instead of working a nine-or-so-hour day in a single block, I broke the day into multiple blocks. I started the day doing a few hours at home, which was particularly useful after a sleepless night. I then travelled to work after peak hour (sometimes reducing my commute time by half) and did another chunk of up to six hours. I then travelled home around 4pm before peak hour hit, and was home in time to cook my wife dinner and give her a break. I then finished with another hour or two in the late evening so responses to emails from the late afternoon would be out before the morning.
This did take my client some getting used to. One day, after sending a post-midnight email, my client asked if I was okay, thinking there must have been an issue for me to be working so late! Once reminded of my flexible working arrangement, they understood.
Being flexible about flexible working
When my son was between four and seven months old (with changed sleeping patterns and on to eating solids), I found I was more useful being around to help with the dinner, bath and bed routine than being present in the morning. So, for this period I arranged with my clients to start and finish early each day, arriving no later than 7.30am and leaving by 3.45pm, again logging on in the evening as needed.
I then took seven months’ parental leave until our son was 14 months old. When I returned to work, I started at four days a week, which I still do now that we have two kids. Fridays are ‘Samuel-Daddy day’ and have helped us find a good balance between work and parenting so it doesn’t feel like our son is being raised by his teachers at daycare!
Personally, I’ve avoided working from home except as a last resort to care for a sick child when client deadlines prevented a sick/carer’s day, or where someone else was home to provide full-time care, enabling me to actually work from home. When I have had to do it out of necessity, I’ve found it very difficult to focus on a laptop and give my child the required level of attention. It’s not fair to my children or colleagues and I end up working all day and night to get through both. I think there is also a risk of hugely damaging the integrity of work-from-home policies if I’m not able to get my work done.
My biggest learnings for flexible working success
It’s about give and take
Be flexible to find an option that meets both your needs and those of your employer and client. Be creative and take a design mindset to finding the best balance between your employer’s needs and the time you need for family.
Adjust expectations with needs
Set the expectation that your flexible arrangements will likely need to change over time, to mirror the changing needs of your child. This also goes the other way – workplace needs and context may change so keep checking to ensure it’s still working for your team.
Keep your team informed
Make it easy for people to remember your arrangements – you can’t expect others to remember without your help! Keep verbally and visually reminding them of your arrangements, e.g. adding a note to your email signature, blocking out non-work hours in your diary and including reminders on team visual management boards.
Stick to your arrangement
Don’t make compromises. Once you have a flexible arrangement, stick to it. If you make exceptions, others will either forget what your arrangements are (see point above), or they’ll think that you’re not serious about keeping it and continue making requests outside your arrangements. Be reasonable and find alternative options – like logging in later in the evening – but maintain your pattern.
There is a natural gap that forms when you’re working at different times or locations to others. It is your responsibility to help minimise that gap. Be clear about what you are working on and where you are up to, and ensure if you have capacity that you’re transparent about it to others in the same way you would be in the office.
Written by Blake Woodward. For more tips from Blake about setting up flexible working arrangements, see his article ‘Having the conversation’ on Suit Tie Stroller.