Flexible work setups edge into mainstream

A decade ago, few employees would have considered asking the boss for permission to work at home or arrive at the office early and leave early.

But corporate America has made enormous strides since then on the flexibility front. No longer are flexible work schedules simply policies on the books. Employees are asking for - and getting - more control over their time.

No doubt the tight labor market has been the biggest factor pushing companies forward. Hoping to attract new workers, some businesses now advertise flexibility and even grant such arrangements to people right off the street.

And the issue will only gain momentum as long as companies continue to sweat over recruitment and retention.

"Flexibility has come out of the closet," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "Now companies are more likely to openly encourage it rather than just to have it."

Consider: In 1990, about half of employers offered some type of flexible scheduling, such as part-time work, compressed workweeks, flexible start and stop times, job sharing, and telecommuting. That number has jumped to 76 percent today, according to Hewitt Associates, a human-resources consulting firm.

Two years ago, Seattle-based Boeing launched a telecommuting program at the urging of workers. Today, roughly 2,000 employees participate in the program. American Express now has some 635 telecommuting workers after launching a similar program in 1998.

"It's always been the thing that employees want most, but it was not something that employers were enthusiastic about," Ms. Galinsky says.

According to a 1999 Watson Wyatt Worldwide survey, the main reasons top performers say they'd be tempted to join another firm include: better compensation, career development, opportunities for advancement, and a flexible work schedule.

As a result, companies seem willing to try just about anything to land and keep skilled workers. That includes allowing people to do a little work from their dining-room table once in a while.

"If there is someone we really want to work for us, and they don't want to work in Dallas, we might be real motivated [to work out a flexible arrangement]," says Betty Purkey, manager of work-life programs at Dallas-based Texas Instruments.

Tom Ferguson, a software-design engineer, had worked in Dallas for Texas Instruments for seven years when he submitted a proposal last September to work for the company from Florida. Two months later he was working, closer to his family, in the Sunshine State.

"It was fairly well known that given the right opportunity in Florida, I would probably come back down here," he says.

Still, some companies and industries seem to be more receptive to the idea than others. A 1998 Families and Work Institute survey found that companies that offer flexible work arrangements tend to be large, have a high proportion of women in top positions, and have had difficulty filling vacancies.

Most observers agree that several key forces will help push flexibility forward. For one, a growing number of baby boomers will have to care for aging parents - an issue that runs all the way up the corporate ladder.

Laurie Young, cofounder of Cos Cob, Conn.-based Flexible Resources, which places people in flexible work arrangements, says Generation Xers are also demanding more flexibility.

"In the 10 years we've been doing this, we've seen a real growth in people who aren't parents, people who have to take care of elderly parents, or people who have said, 'My life isn't only my work,' " she says.

But some hurdles still exist before flexibility goes mainstream. Plenty of managers still hold that "face time" is the only way to guarantee productivity.

At the same time, workers still worry that the boss will view them as less committed if they ask to work part time or from home.

In addition, plenty of employers look at flexibility as if it's an accommodation.

"Many companies still think that there are business needs over here and employee needs over there and they contradict each other," says Marcia Straehley of San Francisco-based consulting firm New Ways to Work. "Ultimately, if you have employees who are more satisfied on the job, more committed, and feeling like they don't have to make choices constantly between surviving on the home front and the work front, they will be able to work more effectively."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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