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Why Conventional Wisdom On Work Flexibility Is Always Wrong

In a previous post, I wrote about why employment statistics are always wrong. In a similar way, conventional wisdom on work flexibility is always wrong.

It is impossible to generalize something that is inherently case-by-individual case. Therefore, any boilerplate advice or conventional wisdom is bound to omit a key consideration, underweight or overemphasize other considerations, or take too long-term or short-term of a view.

As with employment, the unemployment statistic for the broader market doesn’t matter; for you, the relevant statistic is 0 or 100 percent. With flexibility, the relevant issue is whether your situation works for you—yes or no. If not, what needs to change and how can it be changed. If yes, how do you sustain this and ensure the arrangement continues.

For example, some professionals dismiss higher levels as having too much responsibility to allow for flexibility. But management jobs often grant more autonomy which is actually more conducive to flexibility.

Some professionals assume that certain industries are by default inflexible. While investment banking and management consulting are oft-quoted examples of inflexible industries, you will see cases of people with flexible schedules.

You will also see people who have earned enough money and career credibility that they have more flexibility in future career choices.

So stop generalizing about flexibility prospects and take a microscope to your own situation:

  • What do you mean by flexibility? Do you mean flexplace, or the ability to work anywhere? Do you mean flextime, or the ability to work an atypical or reduced schedule? How flexible are you about flexibility—do you need a guaranteed schedule or are willing to change week-by-week?
  • For job seekers, what industry, function, level, and company size are you targeting? What is customary for these companies? For the currently employed, what is the history of your employer with flexibility? Needing this information doesn’t conflict with my saying that generalities don’t matter; you want to know what expectations are so you can create a strategy for crafting something that works for you.
  • How do you plan to make flexibility work for your target or current employer? Do you have the equipment and resources to work flexibly? Do you have colleagues who need to interact with you—how will you manage this? Have you established trust and credibility with your boss and other management?
  • How will you measure career success for you and business success for your company with this flexible arrangement? Does your job already have clear metrics, such as sales generated or client satisfaction scores? How can you implement results-based metrics if there are none?
  • For how long do you need this flexibility? What are your career goals one and more years out? Can you accomplish what you need in the long-term with the flexibility in the short-term?

As you can see from the short sample of questions, a lot of these issues are less about flexibility than they are about getting business results and having career clarity. It is not enough to want flexibility and just aim for whatever job or career appears to be flexible.

You need to do all of the job search preparation and proactive career management that every successful professional must do—what do you want short-term and long-term, what are your job targets, how will you measure success—and then overlay the nuance of flexibility on top of these foundational issues to tailor your strategy.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert, writer, speaker and co-founder of SixFigureStart® (www.sixfigurestart.com), a career coaching firm comprised of former Fortune 500 recruiters. Caroline is a co-author (along with Donald Trump, Jack Canfield and other leading business authors) of "How the Fierce Handle Fear: Secrets to Succeeding in Challenging Times" from Two Harbors Press, 2010. Formerly in corporate HR and retained search, Caroline has recruited for leading companies in media, financial services, consulting, technology and healthcare.

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