How flexible working can save your family and your career

Whether you're about to return to work after maternity leave, or are already back in the game but struggling to juggle work and childcare, flexible working can make an enormous difference to both your finances and your sanity.

Indeed, for Gemma Kantecki, a single mum from Flackwell Heath in Buckinghamshire, it's the difference between being able to carry on doing the job she loves or giving it up. "I have to work full-time to pay the bills but I work from home," explains Gemma, 32, a marketing manager for O2.

This means Gemma is close to her four-year-old daughter Belle's nursery and can fit a full working day around its opening hours. "It means I can do a full day, rather than dropping Belle off at 8am and doing a rush hour commute, getting in late, struggling to park and then having to leave early to pick her up again," she explains.

The arrangement also gives Gemma the reassurance that she can get to her daughter quickly if there's an emergency. "I couldn't work without this flexibility," she adds. Flexible working can take numerous forms - it might be working part-time, working from home like Gemma, or adjusting the hours you work.

Accommodating employers

Sarah Alexander, a team manager for the Law Society, for example, also works full-time, but rather than working everyday she does compressed hours. "I work Monday to Thursday but I do full-time hours," she explains.

This leaves the mum of two to have Fridays off with Thomas, who is three and half, and two-year-old Katie at home in Todmorden, Yorkshire. "My employer has been very accommodating but there is an unwritten rule that my BlackBerry is on during Friday. You do need to have a bit of give and take."

Juggling work with childcare is hard enough when your children are small, but while cost pressures might ease when they go to school, the logistics involved with school runs, after-school clubs, sports days and the like can make life twice as hard for mums who want to maintain a career but still be on hand for their kids.

Samantha Browne*, a 39-year-old quality control manager from Leeds, is lucky to have a very open-minded employer and has a contract that enables her to work full-time but in a way that strikes a better work/life balance.

Although Samantha works her contracted 37.5 hours every week, she doesn't have to work a straight nine to five in the office and can make up time at evenings and weekends if needs be. "I don't have to clock in or clock out, I just have to finish my projects by the deadline," she explains.

"Unless I'm needed for a meeting, I'll work from home, so it means I can take my two boys to school those days. Tomorrow is the school play, which just means I'll have to start work later."

Some employers are certainly more proactive than others when it comes to flexible working - but just because there's no culture of part-time or home working in your office doesn't mean you can't strike a better deal with your boss.

Exercise your rights

Under current law, all parents with children under the age of 16 have the right to request flexible working and there is a set procedure that your employer has to follow as a result – which effectively means they can't simply laugh your request off the table. By law, they have to take your proposal seriously.

This request can cover the hours you work, where you work or different patterns of work. You will have to put this request in writing, but it's often easier to raise the matter more informally with your boss or line manager in the first instance.

"You can only make one application per 12 months, so have an informal chat first to see where you stand," advises Jennifer Liston-Smith, director of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care – an organisation that helps employers operate in a more family-friendly way.

It's important to note that these regulations only cover a right to request flexible working. James Hall, a solicitor in the employment team at Charles Russell, explains: "As flexible working becomes increasingly popular, there is a greater expectation from employees that requests will be granted in at least some form.

Despite this, employers have a broad scope for being able to accept or reject any flexible working requests."

Once you have submitted your request, your employer has 28 days to schedule a meeting to discuss it. Then it has a further 14 days to inform you of its decision.

According to Hall, there are eight statutory reasons that allow employers to reject your request – namely, cost to the business, ability to meet customer demand, ability to reorganise staff, ability to recruit additional staff, a detrimental impact on quality, a detrimental impact on performance, insufficient work available at amended times and planned structural changes.

This means you really need to regard your application as a business proposal – think about how it could help your employer and increase your productivity rather than focusing on your specific needs. If you want to work from home, spell out your childcare arrangements.

Suggesting a trial period or targets to measure your performance can provide reassurance to worried bosses. If your employer agrees to your request, you should be given a new contract that reflects your new working arrangements. However, Liston-Smith says some agreements – such as working one day a week from home – might be made on a more informal basis.

Trust-based arrangements can work very well for some people, but there are risks if changes aren't made to your contract. "If you have a change of manager, you have no protection in your contract," she adds.

Make it happen

If your employer does say no – or you are already aware that the business would not be able to accommodate your request, you don't have to close the door on a satisfying work/life balance.

Prior to having children, Sam Willoughby from Hampshire, 40, worked as a project manager for a large financial services company.

"Before I went on maternity leave, I realised that my job wouldn't work as it stood so I made an approach with a few suggestions of how it could but I was just fobbed off," she explains.  "I knew if I wanted to work flexibly, I needed to make it happen myself."

So when her daughter Alice (now eight) was 18 months old, she launched an online directory of children's activities called She didn't have to use any childcare until Alice started pre-school and now juggles work around school hours.

"I work about 24 hours a week – and I always take Alice to school, pick her up and take her to after-school clubs. Three mornings a week, I also manage a fitness class," she says.

The business has since grown exponentially and, along with her business partner, she has launched more directory sites for mums and children and has sold franchises on to other mums who don't want to sacrifice the school run to have a rewarding career.

* Name changed

Make sure your employer says YES to your flexible working request

Jessica Chivers, The Thinking Woman's Coach and author of Mother's Work! How to get a smooth grip on work and make a smooth return to work, shares her tips.

  • When you make your flexible-working proposal, position it in a way that makes you more productive.
  • Even if it's your sole reason for requesting flexible working, don't dwell on your needs. This will be seen as a request that suits your personal life and isn't helpful.
  • Reinforce your commitment and don't have a part-time mentality. If you do need to be away by a certain time ask your manager: "How can we make this work?" All the time you need to be looking to collaborate and come up with solutions. Don't give your team problems.
  • Talk to other members of your team first about how it can work. Use your keeping in touch days (during maternity leave) to pick up the vibe.
  • Don't be apologetic. Use confident language - own the problem and the solution.

Remember you can always renegotiate your role if necessary.