How to Request a Flexible Schedule if You’re a Working Parent

No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.

While some companies in the U.S. are starting to require their employees to come back to the office, many working parents don’t have the ability to go back to their in-person work routines because childcare centers and schools are still close or partly re-opening. Rather, they need (and deserve) a flexible schedule to help them achieve a feasible work-life balance.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80.3% of employed mothers with children ages 6 to 17 worked full time in 2019. But a study from USC’s Dornsife Center of Economic and Social Research found that 64% of college-educated mothers reported they had to reduce their working hours since March 2020. Why? Well, the same study reported that 44% of women in early April claimed they were the only member in their household to provide childcare. It’s not surprising that women with children have also reported feeling even more symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 34% of mothers claiming they were still “at least mildly distressed” in June, according to the USC’s Dornsife Center of Economic and Social Research.

So when an employer requests a parent to return to work full-time in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, it might be in the parent’s best interest to request to continue working from home until their child can safely go back to school or when childcare is available again. But how can a working parent request a more flexible schedule when the rest of their team is heading back to work? We connected with a few career experts to find out how people can have this conversation with their bosses ASAP.

HelloGiggles (HG): What should parents think about before asking their employer for flexible hours?

“Although decisions about working remotely or from the office are deeply personal and unique to each individual, flexibility is not. In fact, in our conversations with employers, we share that autonomy and flexibility are required as we build the new future of work.

“As you evaluate, start with an individual or family planning session. Begin by outlining the needs you have at this time, and what you would like to request. Think about how you will continue to support your clients/customers and prepare to share those details. Also, include the successes you have had during this period of flexibility, both professionally and personally. As you write your requests, prioritize options that would appeal broadly to your organization rather than a lot of individual requests.

“For example, asking to work flexible hours with a set number of core hours where everyone could work together might really appeal to your employer. Or request a day of the week where there are no meetings, which is a benefit to the entire team. These types of items provide more flexibility for everyone and lead to fewer individual expectations for you to manage—which can increase equity.”

— La’Kita Williams, founder of CoCreate Work, a leadership coaching and consulting company

HG: How can parents communicate that they need to work from home because childcare is not an option?

“It’s best to speak to your direct manager first. Explain your situation and be specific with what you’re asking for: Do you need to continue working from home while the office is opening back up? Do you need a modified schedule for work? Are you unavailable for calls during certain times of the day?

“Explain that you’re highly motivated to do the job well, but that you’re currently constrained. Also, ask what is being done for other parents right now. It will be helpful for you to know whether there is a company-wide direction or whether decisions are being made at the team-level. This will also help you to know whether you need to involve other people if you run into resistance with your request. 

“Also, keep a record of your conversations and what was agreed to (or not). Send the request by email, or if you speak by phone/video call, send a follow-up email to your manager confirming what was said. Regardless of the outcome, it’s useful to have these conversations documented.”

— Rebecca Weaver, founder of HRuprise, a media and consulting company that explores the root of workplace harassment

HG: What should parents steer clear from doing when requesting more flexible hours?

Do not go into the meeting unprepared. Make sure you have an outline and you are clear on the specific requests you would like to make.

Make sure that you do not offer any concessions. For example, an employee offering to forgo vacation, opportunities, or pay increases if they can work a flexible schedule. An employer should never negotiate flexibility like this, and ensure you do not make these types of offers.

Do not forget the details. Sometimes these conversations are difficult and one might be tempted to forgo asking questions and seeking clarity. Remember that details are critical to a successful experience. For example, ask questions about what working a flexible schedule looks like with regards to assignments and new opportunities. Confirm that performance will be measured equitably across the company. Ask your employer for their list of expectations for you.”

— Williams

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HG: What should parents do if their employers can’t accommodate their requests?

“If you haven’t already, talk to HR and/or go up the chain in leadership. It’s important for them to know that your manager is not willing to work with you and find out it’s a company-wide policy. It’s very unlikely that you’re the only employee facing challenges. Talk to other employees who are parents as well. Find out what arrangements they have made with the company.

“You may be eligible for paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. There are some restrictions, but it is worth checking in to whether your company qualifies and if you’re therefore eligible. Check into your company’s leave of absence policies to see if you have options from the company.”

— Weaver 

“If your employer denies your request for flexible hours, ask them for specifics on why they believe flexibility wouldn’t work. Many times, employers are responding out of unnecessary fears, like missed deadlines or lack of creativity. Be prepared to suggest solutions to any concerns your employer might have. For example, reminding them of your past level of execution and commitment or sharing details of how you will continue to innovate and partner with the team. One of the things for employers to remember is that focused time and flexibility can have a positive impact to work outcomes and the emotional health of employees.”

— Williams

HG: What advice do you have for parents struggling with finding a balance?

“Working parents are under an enormous amount of stress right now. If it isn’t the constant interruptions or juggling being a teacher at home with Zoom calls for work, it’s the guilt over the amount of screen time kids are getting. 

“The first thing I’d advise parents is to be kind to yourself and stay flexible. It has become a cliché, but it’s true: these are unprecedented times. Your normal rules of the house (like screen time limits) may not serve you right now. 

“Don’t forget to invest in your own well-being. Making time for exercise, even if it’s walking together around your neighborhood, can be incredibly helpful in maintaining your own mental health. Stay connected to fellow parents who are facing similar challenges. You can share tactics and get moral support from other people who are in the same position as you. 

“Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are really helpful and vastly underutilized benefits. Most companies offer them if they offer medical benefits. EAPs can put you in touch with a counselor with a number of visits covered for free. There are also online services (like Better Help and TalkSpace) that are much less expensive than in-person therapy visits.”

— Weaver 

HG: How should employers handle parents and current childcare issues? How they should adapt moving forward?

“Employers should be as flexible as possible with all employees, especially parents, for at least the next six to twelve months. We’ve already seen school districts across the country announce a wide variety of plans for the coming school year. 

“They should pay especially close attention to working moms, which research is showing are being disproportionally affected during this crisis. 

“Managers should check in regularly with working parents, ask how they’re doing and what additional support they need. They should understand that parents are dealing with many issues competing for their time and attention, so the work is likely to be completed outside of the normal nine-to-five schedule. Making changes like minimizing the number of required Zoom calls and adjusting workloads for everyone during this time can go a long way.” 

— Weaver 

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