Flexibility As Currency in Job Negotiations

(I wrote this post for 1 Million for Work Flexibility, where it also appears on their blog.)

Work flexibility has long been viewed as a perk or a privilege that comes along with winning the “boss lottery” and being fortunate to have a supervisor who supports flexible work hours. But as it becomes common practice in more companies around the world and a greater number of people advocate for it, it begs the question: What is flexibility worth? Does it have negotiable value? The answer is yes.

What is flexibility worth?

For an employer, offering flexibility has value because it is associated with increased employee productivity and loyalty as well as cost savings (five years ago, Cisco reported saving $277 million per year in time and productivity through telecommuting). For an employee, the value of flexibility is correlated with the personal importance it holds for him or her, and by extension the members of his or her family who may benefit in multiple ways. Added value also comes in the form of health benefits, with research showing flexible schedules can result in improved sleep, lower blood pressure, improved mental health and better self-reported health status.

There is clearly compelling research demonstrating the quantitative value of flexibility. But even in more general, qualitative terms, the value of flexibility is evident. For a forty-something mother of three with aging parents who is trying to juggle work with school schedules, sick days, field trips, and doctor’s appointments, flexibility may make or break her ability to manage her caretaking responsibilities and therefore carries a very high value. For a young, recent college graduate without significant health issues or caretaking responsibilities, the associated value may not seem quite as high. And yet, data shows that millennials place high importance on work flexibility. One survey found 74% of 20- to 30-somethings want flexible work schedules and 88% want work-life integration. Another showed 45% of millenials would choose work flexibility over pay. So while the value of work flexibility is variable and unique to an individual, it is registering high across generations.

Flexibility as currency in job negotiations

If flexibility has recognizable value, then it can be treated as a form of currency and a negotiated piece of a compensation package. When I returned to work after a five-year break, I treated flexibility as an essential piece of my desired compensation package. With two children under the age of five, one still in diapers, flexibility was every bit as important to me as salary, commute time, and retirement benefits. Salary is obviously important, but even the (hypothetical) opportunity to make two or three times my target salary would never make up for the ability to work a schedule that allowed me to pick up my kids a few days per week, participate in school events, and be home for family dinners. So, based on how much I personally valued time with my family, flexibility became integral to my job search.

As a result, I made the decision to discuss flexibility as one of my expectations up front. And this decision came at a cost (flex is currency, after all). Raising it during a first interview felt awkward, created a lot of internal anxiety, and prevented me from moving forward in some cases. After one particular first-round interview during which I expressed my desire for a flexible work schedule, the employer responded, “While we think many of your skills are a great match, we are looking for someone who can be fully dedicated to the position.” As hard, frustrating, and off the mark this feedback was (working a flex schedule in no way reflects a lesser degree of dedication), it was important enough to me to complicate and narrow my job search by adding in this requirement. And although it was incredibly discouraging at the time, it ultimately prevented me from signing on with an employer who was not going to be supportive of flexibility, and therefore not a good match for me.

Although I can certainly understand the argument to raise the issue of flexibility farther along in the interview process, based on its importance to me, I felt not addressing it early would seem like a “bait and switch” and that I would be wasting everyone’s time if it was just not part of their work culture. I also believed that by treating my desire for flexibility as a piece of the compensation negotiation, it demonstrated to my employer the value I placed on it and gave it equal weight to the other standard components such as salary, time off, etc. Bringing it up post-hire would downgrade its importance to more of a “nice to have” and would give my employer the chance to decline my request without the risk that I might walk away. In other words, I wanted a flexible schedule to be a condition of my employment—not a favor my new employer granted me.

This approach (combined with a lot of patience and perseverance) eventually paid off for me. But follow it with caution. If you place high value on flexibility and want to negotiate for it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. But you must be prepared to walk away from the job. Culturally, we are not at a point where flexible accommodations are a common part of salary negotiations. Requesting it up front can naively lead employers to question your dedication, as I experienced. I believe the more flex is requested and treated with equivalent value to other components of compensation, the more we will elevate its status and, with any luck, it will become as standard as flexible spending accounts or commuter benefits. With that said, use your best judgment when determining when and in what way you elect to negotiate for flexibility. If you do not have the financial means or patience to risk delaying your search by negotiating for it up front, you may want to take the lower risk approach of broaching the subject after you are hired. You can also negotiate for flexibility months or years into your employment. Once you have become a proven asset to the company, the value of your requested flexibility may have risen for the employer who wants to retain you as a productive and loyal employee.

Flexibility is currency. It has value that is determined by the parties involved in its exchange and can be negotiated. And employers take note: its value is rising rapidly. In another ten years, hopefully employers will be including flex scheduling as a standard component of their benefits packages. Based on the value it brings to employers and employees alike, it certainly seems worth it.

Photo credit: 401(K) 2013 / Foter / CC BY-SA

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