Career Tips

You can’t put a child in a violin case. 4 tips to negotiate flexibility.

Chairwoman of FlexCareers, Rhonda Brighton-Hall, recently shared her top tips on how to negotiate flexibility at our recent FlexConnect event. Flexible working is not a privilege of working parents but for now, without it, many talented women will continue to be forced to stay out of the workforce. Flexibility is the way of the future for all, even violin enthusiasts!

When a working mother approached her female manager to talk about flexible work arrangements so she could better care for her special needs child, she was surprised when her manager likened the situation to the flexibility required to take violin lessons. Of course, flexibility can be for all sorts of reasons, but a violin is a little easier than most. You can simply pop it in its case and it will stay there quietly until you get home. Children on the other hand need more care and attention!

For many mothers, securing flexible work is extremely challenging. This sad reality was evidenced in the results of our recent survey, which revealed that only 1 in 10 women have their ideal flexible work arrangement. It was no surprise when our FlexConnect event – Negotiating Flexibility – on International Women’s Day quickly sold out.

On the 10th floor in the Macquarie Group Conference Centre, Rhonda Brighton-Hall, FlexCareers Chairwoman, wowed the attendees with her impressive credentials. She then shared her ‘real resume’ about her 3 children, her husband, her love of the ocean and sport and her dedication to helping indigenous people and those with disabilities. This immediately set the tone for a very open and honest discussion around flexibility and the barriers many of the women have faced or are facing in their careers.

“What I find really disappointing having been in HR for the past 25 years is that we are simply not moving forward on gender diversity. The stats don’t seem to be getting any better no matter how we have approached it.” Rhonda said. “What worked 150 years ago, when the 8-hour-day, seven-day-work week came into existence, simply doesn’t work in today’s world. Our needs as employees have changed. Our expectations as customers have also changed dramatically. It’s well past time businesses changed to respond to this. Flexibility is the way of the future.”

The benefits of flexible working extend beyond just working parents. The output focused approach leads to greater productivity and allows businesses to respond to customers’ needs, for example a 24/7 contact centre. Flexible working continues to deliver increased job engagement and satisfaction as people value having control over their time. It is this very control that draws talented working women back to the workforce as it allows them to better balance a plethora of other commitments. The question then is how does one secure this flexibility?

Vicky Hickey, Partner at KPMG, shared her story of how she has managed to integrate her family and work lives. She returned to work 10 months after the birth of her first child and admitted she thought she would function just as she had before. What she hadn’t realised was how much she had changed and how her priorities had shifted since becoming a parent. It was only after stretching herself past the limit, and finding herself in a hospital bed that she recognised she needed to make some changes if she was going to continue to be the mother she wanted to be and have the career she strived for. At work, she set clear boundaries and was more open about her circumstances. She realised she could achieve more by coaching her team to deliver more, a skill she believes she has developed since becoming a parent. She also encouraged her whole team, parents or not, to embrace flexibility. On the home front, she also set up the right support structures with additional help from her husband and an au pair. Vicky encouraged the audience of captivated listeners to also shift the feelings of guilt that invariably creep in when you have to prioritise your time, “I make a conscious decision and don’t beat myself up about it. Respect yourself once you have made a decision”.

One of the attendees told of her experience of when she put in a flexible work request and it was granted for 1 month only! The reason being that the business had previously declined a man’s request for flexible work and it would be unfair if she was given a flexible work arrangement. During the discussion that followed this example, Rhonda explained that “to truly be fair, you often have to treat people differently based on different circumstances and needs”, which is a challenging thought as a leader, employee and parent!

Research over time has shown that on average, women who enter into a flexible work arrangement last 6 weeks before resigning or returning to full-time work. Surprised? This indicates that women are either not securing the flexibility they need to set themselves up for a sustainable and successful career, or that the workplace is not receptive to flexible work and puts a great deal of pressure for every employee to work long hours or the traditional working week.

Here are Rhonda’s top tips for securing a flexible work arrangement that actually works:

1. Know your rights

Spend a few hours reading the government websites ( Fair Work CommissionFair Work Ombudsman Human Rights Commission and  WGEA) so you are well versed in the legislation and have good guidelines. This is not so you can quote legal lines or adopt a combative stance but more so you are prepared for a sensible discussion and avoid your request being fobbed off. It will give you confidence to know that you are well within your rights to make a reasonable request.

2. Know what you want and what you are prepared to compromise to

Have very clear idea of what flexibility you need to make your family ‘work’. Write it down so you can go back to it. Flexible work arrangements are a neatly balanced plan, not ‘ad hoc’ and constantly changing. Remember, when you get the flexibility you are after you need to hold it which requires setting boundaries that work and sticking to them.

3. Know the organisation and the decision maker

This is easier if you are currently working at the organisation but if not, Google the business and find out what you can about their approach to flexible work arrangements. It’s important you go into your negotiation with a constructive mindset and think how you can make your proposal work for the business too.

4. Employ Win/Win negotiation techniques

Focus on your contribution and let the flexibility become secondary. For example, ‘I’m excited about the role and how I can use my experience and skills to make an impact’. Also, make sure you sit on the same side as the decision maker and never opposite them. It changes the dynamic and puts you on the same side of the discussion. If you’re into reading, try “Think like a lawyer don’t act like one” by Aernoud Bourdrez for more negotiation tips.

“When companies move to an output mindset which is based on trust and contribution, flexibility will become more mainstream.” Rhonda explained. “The business world is on the cusp of this change and it won’t be long before we’re all working a version of ‘flexibly’ and we’ve long forgotten the current pains of negotiating as the ‘exception’”. Flexible working is not a privilege of working parents but for now, without it, many talented women will continue to be forced to stay out of the workforce. Flexibility is the way of the future for all, even violin enthusiasts!


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