flexible working

I work for a global management consulting firm and, after many years of watching people work part time with kids I thought, I want that job. I don’t want to change career, I don’t want to leave and go to another company, I want to stay here and have that job. They have the same title as me, they are paid a similar salary to me and it seems they have a completely different job to me in terms of expectations. I debated what to do about this for a while and I finally decided I wanted to work four days a week. Not to look after kids but to look after me. That seemed like a reasonable thing to consider when your company is singing its own praises about flexible working but to be honest it was not a reasonable thing to consider.

My experience of these ‘flexible work arrangements’ is that they only really apply to people who have kids. There is a strange double standard in these work places whereby you can legitimately leave work at 5pm every day to pick up your kid from day care but you can’t leave at 5pm one night of the week to train for a marathon or go to a yoga class or attend a photography night class. Why is this the case? What if I never have kids? Can I never leave work at 5pm if I never have kids?

One Investment Banking friend of mine put it quite succinctly when he said ‘ If you worked for me and wanted to work part time because you had kids I would assume you were ambitious but you simply couldn’t work full time. If you wanted to work part time to pursue other hobbies I would assume you were not ambitious and not interested in progressing in your career.’

My boss at the time was a New Yorker who worked 24 hours / 7 days a week so asking him if I could work four days a week or leave work at 5pm was a bit like asking him if I could work from 9am to 2pm from Tuesday to Thursday in a different kind of job. I thought about whether to lie to my boss about what I was going to do. I actually looked up University courses and wondered if I should go and do one of those to make the request more reasonable but I already had a Masters degree and I didn’t really need or want another one. In fact, I didn’t want to do anything to do with work, I wanted time to do all the things that I hadn’t had time to do for the last decade while I was working 24/7. I wanted to learn to ride a horse, do a yoga teacher training course and travel more.

I went into my year end appraisal discussion braced for the conversation ahead. The New Yorker was always in a rush so he quickly went through the motions of telling me my performance ranking and giving me a bit of feedback. He told me I was valued, he told me my clients loved me and we both came up with a few ‘areas of development’ for the year ahead. We both knew the drill. At the end of the discussion he asked if I had anything else I wanted to discuss. While I had been full of confidence and bravado for the discussion I suddenly became a timid mouse. You see I knew that the New Yorker came from the same school of thought as my Investment Banking friend. I knew that by asking for time off to do yoga and ride a horse I was immediately putting myself into a different category of people at work. I was taking myself out of the ‘ambitious, go-getting, high performing’ category and putting myself into a category that sat below the ‘working mothers’ category in order of importance or value to The New Yorker. I took a deep breath and told myself I had nothing to lose. I knew that I wasn’t getting promoted that year so I wasn’t taking myself off the promotion list, I knew that if I got fired I would get a job somewhere else and I knew that if I didn’t make a change to my workaholic lifestyle, I was likely to simply quit one day in the not too distant future. I finally got the words ‘I want to work part time’ out of my mouth. The New Yorker and I were both a bit stunned. He looked at me and said ‘are you pregnant?’ I said ‘no’. He then asked ‘are you sick?’ I said ‘no’. He looked at me incredulously and said ‘Well then why do you want to work part time?’. I told him I wanted to ride a horse and do yoga and he looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. He didn’t know what to say but his diversity training finally kicked in and he said ‘Our company supports diversity. I don’t know how you apply to work part time but talk to HR and fill out the forms.’ The meeting was over and I knew as I left the room that we would never have the same relationship again. I had been immediately kicked out of the ‘boys club’ of young, ambitious, go-getting girls and guys into some sort of employee wasteland. Unlike the ‘mothers club’ I was now in my own little club ….not accepted by the mothers’ club as I couldn’t possibly understand their woes and not accepted by the boys’ club as I had chosen to leave it. I had to admit I wondered what I had done.

There were quite a lot of teething pains that came with a workaholic working part time in a 24/7 environment. It was a bit like an alcoholic working in a bar while all his/her friends sat around the bar drinking wine. However, like all addicts, I slowly developed new habits and new friends. I did my yoga teacher training course, I learned to ride a horse and I learned to say no. For me it was well worth taking the time off and I would recommend it to anyone who has spent a decade in the office and wants to pursue some hobbies in the outside world.

Here are my tips for asking for a flexible work arrangement when you don’t have kids:

  1. Just do it. I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to ask for a flexible work arrangement and how to ask for one. In the end it was much easier than I thought and to be fair to my New Yorker boss and to my company, my request was approved without any real challenge.
  2. Book something in for your time off. Book in a course or a weekly lunch with friends or a trip out of town. Breaking the workaholic habit of a decade is hard to do. If you don’t book stuff in for your time off, my experience is you will just end up working the same amount and getting paid 20% less.
  3. Expect a negative response. You will get a negative response from the guys and girls at work who are working full time because you challenge their whole way of thinking. You will get a negative response from mothers who work part time and resent the fact you get to spend your Fridays doing yoga while they have to deal with their kids.
  4. Be flexible. It is a privilege to work part time in any role but especially in an intellectually challenging and interesting role. If your boss or client needs to have a full day workshop on your day off and it is pretty easy for you to swap days, do it.
  5. It may impact your speed of progression up through the firm. If you put yourself into this new category of employees namely the ‘childless people who work part time’ it may impact the rate at which you move up through the firm even more so than it would impact a mother who chose to work part time. The fairness or unfairness of this situation is another discussion entirely. You need to decide what is most important to you at this point in your life.