How to Ask for a Flexible Work Schedule as Offices Return to “Normal”

It's a conversation to have with your boss sooner rather than later.

In March of 2020, you went from a set routine to working from home overnight. The entry was rough to put it kindly. Your office was the dining room table if you were lucky. Your kids were now enrolled at school from home and you somehow had to explain what compound consonants were. But you adjusted. You carved out a corner for yourself, found the beauty in headphones, and you and your spouse figured out a schedule that worked.

Now, You hear rumblings that the office will be re-opening, that staffs will be returning to work. But you like not having to put on shoes and being able to do pickup without taking a personal day. You say in hushed toned to your most trusted people, “I don’t want to go back,” but you have no idea what your bosses envision. Guess what? They don’t fully know either.

“I don’t think anyone has a full scope yet,” says Eric Hosey, head of human resources at the analytics company Semrush. “All things are in play.”

But a return in some form is in view, and “now back-to-work is the tussle,” notes Caryn Goulet, executive director of organizational development and human resources at New England Life Care.

Kids are back in school. Vaccines are being administered. Companies have invested in air purifiers. There are fewer viable reasons where you have to be at home. But executives aren’t dumb. They’ve seen what has worked as well, and, in some cases, better than before.

They also know many employees like the taste of flexibility and taking a hard line will cause an exodus for more open-minded places. The good news is that your flexible schedule and set up don’t have to vanish completely, but it means having a conversation with your company where you keep an open mind and realize that you might not get everything that you want.

The Conversation to Have

When companies say the office is ready, it’s going to be a slow transition and soft opening. With the pandemic, bosses knew that employees were adjusting to being home and having their kids around and all the interruptions that brought.

“Going remote took time,” says Hosey. “It’s the same thing coming back. It will never be a 0-100 situation.”

That can keep your mind from racing, but it also pays to remember that the last year gave many a false sense of security. You can believe that working remotely has been successful but you might not really know. So find out by first asking your manager: “Do you think I’ve made this work and added value?” Goulet says.

Then wait, without expecting rave reviews. Bosses know who’s done well. They also know who hasn’t, but slack was likely given because the circumstances were so atypical. You need to find out your performance, and the answer will guide the conversation.

If you’ve struggled, you’re not in the best position to retain a mostly remote status. But it doesn’t forever preclude you. The suggestion might be to come in more often in order to raise your level back up, per Hosey.

If you’ve thrived, the company has little inclination to fix an unbroken situation, but it’s still a two-sided conversation on what worked, what didn’t, and how to combine the best pieces going forward.

Jumping Into the Pile

With many companies return-to-work plan still in flux, this becomes an opportunity for many. Take the time to ask, “How can I help form what the new normal will look like?,” then offer to be part of that bigger discussion. This not only helps your personal situation, but also shows a willingness to be a leader and take on concerns that aren’t just yours.

It’s also good to note that being remote has made it easy to forget that you’re part of a company filled with people who have varying desires and needs. The C-suite has seen the statistics, Goulet notes, and know that some employees miss in-person interactions, and that element will be part of a hybrid model.

Much of it might be team or department dependent. Some groups are perfectly fine working remotely. Others do better with some amount of contact, whether it’s for training, strategy sessions or reveling in a big sale, but if you’ve been a top performer, your manager will want that influence in-house occasionally, Hosey says.

Zoom can recreate elements, but its limitations have been revealed as well. Goulet likens it to how your kids define play. They can do video games online and “be” with their friends. It’s certainly more convenient and saves you time on chauffeuring, but, as she says, “It’s not the same as playing in the mud.”