How to negotiate a flexible return to work

Anna Meller gives some tips on how to negotiate flexible working.

Women returning to an existing employer after maternity leave have the right to ask for flexible working, although a request can be denied on business grounds. The legislation doesn’t yet cover people starting a new job. Even so, many businesses are embracing the benefits of flexible working. With sound preparation and a clear strategy it should be possible to obtain a new job that allows flexible hours.

Preparation is key

The more groundwork you’re able to do, the better prepared you will be to negotiate an arrangement that suits you.

Begin by clearly identifying the key skills and experience that make you valuable to an employer. This could be a thorough understanding of internal processes and a strong network of internal contacts if you’re returning to the same organisation. Or it could be the professional you’ve developed over a number of years. If you’ve been away from the workplace for some time, identify what new skills you may have acquired during your career break.

American researchers Linda Babcock and Sara Leschever suggest women are poor at negotiating for themselves as they have a “low sense of entitlement” in the workplace. Having clarity on the value you bring to an organisation will give you more negotiating confidence.

Next, picture what your ideal flexible arrangement looks like. Do you want to work full-time or reduced hours. And what types of flexibility are you looking for? Is it flexible on location so you can do some of your work outside the office? Or flexible on time? If you’re not sure whether a specific flexible arrangement will work for you do some research into how it works for others. Sites like and Working Families offer examples or you could take a look at the Jobshare Project website if that’s your preferred option.

Spend some time considering the potential impact of your working arrangement on work colleagues and your boss. And don’t forget you may also need to negotiate with your partner and childcare provider.

Finally, brush up on your negotiating skills. As a busy mother you may feel you spend your whole life negotiating, but it’s still a good idea to get some formal support. Babcock & Leschever (mentioned above) have written two excellent books – “Why Women Don’t Ask” and “Ask For It”. Take a look at one of these for ideas. Alternatively, if you’ve already been getting coaching why not ask your coach to help you – perhaps with some role play.

Have a strategy

If you’re looking for a new job it’s best to avoid online recruitment portals which rarely accommodate CV gaps. The better option is to use a recruitment agency (or headhunter if you’ve been in senior positions) where the search consultant can act as spokesperson on your behalf. Ideally, approach one of the new breed of agencies specialising in flexible working. Capability Jane and Workingmums were pioneers in this area, but newer agencies are springing up all the time.

If the agencies are unable to help you, or you would prefer to make a direct approach,then again doing some research is essential so you can target those employers actively seeking women returners. Take a look at sites like Best Employers for Working Families, Top Employer Awards and Opportunity Now’s Top 50 Employers for Women.

If you’re returning to an existing employer, you may still want to use the tactics discussed below.

Negotiating tactics

Be upfront about your need for flexible hours. Depending on the circumstances, make this clear at initial contact stage or raise it at first interview. Raising the matter early and assessing the response is likely to give you a good indicator of the organisation’s cultural attitude towards flexible working.

Begin by asking plenty of questions. Almost every organisation nowadays has a flexible working policy so it’s better to ask about specifics such as what arrangements the policy covers. What if you want to work an arrangement not covered by the policy? What internal role models of successful flexible working can the organisation point to? Talk with your potential manager and ask what experience s/he has of flexible working. Is there anyone else in the team already working flexibly?

Make it clear that while you have a preferred option, you’re open to negotiation. And don’t feel you need to agree to an arrangement within the space of one meeting. If you need time to consider alternative suggestions ask for one or two days to mull things over.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. It’s better to agree an arrangement you know you’ll be able to manage rather than accept an unsuitable one which leaves you unhappy or stressed. See the situation as an opportunity to showcase your negotiating skills. These are key skills you’ll be using regularly once you’re back at work.

More tips and downloadable forms to help you prepare for negotiating a flexible arrangement can be found on my website here.

*Anna Meller is a freelance consultant and researcher specialising in the area of work life balance. She is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and an affiliate member of the British Psychological Society. Since 2009 she has been an active member of the Division of Occupational Psychology’s Working Group on Work-Life Balance.

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