Do you live to work, or work to live?

Paddy O'Connor decided enough was enough: his job for a supermarket chain was taking over his life. "I was working 70 hours a week and not seeing much of life. The job also involved a lot of travelling, so I was living out of suitcases."

As he and his wife planned to start a family, Paddy decided he didn't want to be an absent dad, so he quit his job to work as a team leader at First Direct bank's call centre near his home in Leeds. Although this job is not without its pressures, the real beauty of it was that Paddy managed to negotiate himself a four-day week. That was 10 years ago and the family has not looked back since.

In exchange for being in the office from 4pm to 1.30am on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and all day Friday, Paddy gets to spend a lot more time with his seven-year-old son Cameron and two-year-old daughter Phoebe. "It's all down to how my work fits around the family. You cannot put a price on being able to bond with your children," he says. "And it means we can spend our money on family holidays instead of childcare."

The O'Connors are not alone. A third of Britain's 30 million employees now work outside the traditional hours of nine-to-five, according to a study carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Changing demands

Flexi-time, job-sharing, variable shift patterns and other innovative working arrangements have all been introduced to cope with the changing demands of today's families, while high-speed internet connections, mobiles, laptops and even video-conferencing have made working from home a real possibility for many people. People now want to exercise more control over their lives.

Government changes have boosted this trend. The Employment Rights Act 2002 introduced the right to request flexible working - and put the onus on employers to take this seriously once it came into force in April 2003.

As a result, all employees who have worked in a business for 26 continuous weeks can apply to work flexible hours if they have a child under six (or a disabled child under 18) and are responsible for the child as either a parent, guardian or foster parent, or are applying to care for the child. This statutory right also applies to people who care (or expect to care) for a spouse, partner, civil partner, relative or someone who lives at the same address.

And from April 2008 the right to ask for flexible working practises will be extended to parents of children up to the age of 16.

However, the important thing to remember is that The Employment Rights Act 2002 only gives you the power to request a flexible working arrangement, not an automatic right to it. Your boss may well reject the request if it is deemed to have a negative impact upon the business.

But many organisations have embraced the legislation. The Metropolitan Police, for example, was crowned Working Families Employer of the Year 2006 in recognition of its innovative and creative approach to the work/life balance. Not only does it have a heavily subsidised back-up childcare system - which everyone can use in a crisis - but all police staff can take advantage of flexible working and emergency leave, as well as holiday play schemes and childcare vouchers.

Putting it in to practice

It seems that the terms flexible working and work/life balance are often bandied about these days - particularly by politicians - but how does it actually work in practice?

We should start by looking at the options and what they mean. Part-time, for example, simply means putting in fewer hours than the standard working week, while flexi-time allows you to vary your hours, even though you will usually have to work for a core period each day and for an expected number of hours.

Job-sharing is where a position is split, usually between two people - for example, one might do the mornings while the other covers afternoons. Then there's term-time working, where people work on a full or part-time basis during the school term and take unpaid leave in the holidays; as well as school-hours working, which enables you to drop your children off at school and pick them up again afterwards.

Being there for her children when the school bell rings was a priority for mum-of-two Cheryl Moody, 37, who lives near Andover in Hampshire. But she was concerned about the impact flexible working would have on her career at healthcare group HSA. Her fears proved unfounded - not only has the company allowed her to take on a full-time marketing position, while honouring her part-time hours, but she's also been promoted. "I was very pleased to know that I could still progress up the career ladder while working part-time," Cheryl says. "I spoke with my manager and agreed I would stay late, as and when required, so that my work would always get done. It's worked out perfectly."

Another option is compressed hours. This involves working the same number of hours but fitting them into fewer days. This has helped London-based lawyer and mother-of-three Monica Burch to juggle the demands of motherhood with her responsibilities as a partner at Addleshaw Goddard. "I work the equivalent of a nine-day fortnight and take my days off during school holidays," she explains. "It's effectively a 10% reduction in my hours and my salary has gone down in-line with that, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."

Still some way to go

But do these examples prove workplace attitudes have changed? Not according to a study by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Despite the growth in flexible working, the UK is still lagging behind many other European countries. For example, just under half of UK companies allow their employees to work flexi-time compared with 90% of businesses in Germany and Sweden.

According to Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC, the reality of corporate life for most British workers is still one of long hours. Getting in at the crack of dawn and not leaving until most people have long since decamped to the pub are viewed as the best ways to impress the boss. "Flexible working is too often seen as just a concession for parents and carers, and comes at the cost of poor pay and prospects," Watson says. "Extending the right to request flexible working to everyone is a crucial step towards breaking this stigma and creating a new work culture."

So, while there are some trailblazing employers out there who are happy to allow their staff a more flexible working life, for many people the only way to strike the right work/life balance will be to quit your job - like Paddy O'Connor - and seek out a role and an employer that will allow flexible working.

Alternatively, you could become your own boss. Internet entrepreneur Simon Kimber, who is 28 and from Brighton, runs a website design company with partner Rebecca Smith. He started his business seven years ago and insists it's one of the best decisions he's ever made. "We're expecting our first child and this is where the flexibility will really come into its own," he says. "Being at home all the time means that neither of us will have to miss a minute of his growing up."