On the frontier of flexibility

Slowly, companies are offering flexible schedules - a key demand of workers.

There is a world in which showing up in person for a meeting is now the exception instead of the rule. A world where people can reach "partner" status at work and still be home to greet their children after school. A world where even single professionals without kids can choose to work part time.

It's called the flexible workplace - a frontier where work and the rest of one's life find a happy equilibrium.

Like any frontier, many people dream about it from a distance. And the ones who make it there often have to clear obstacles and make up new rules along the way.

Nevertheless, the American workplace is making progress in flexibility. In the process, employers are addressing a top concern among workers at a critical time in the economic cycle. If the job picture continues to improve, good employees will again be in short supply, forcing companies to find creative ways to attract and keep them. Addressing the work-life balance is one way employers are doing that.

Of course, as with any cultural change, progress is slow. "Sometimes companies need to have a personal experience to change the mind-set of presence [at work] equals productivity," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. The institute's recent report, "When Work Works," highlights improvements in access to flexible work options - such as reduced workweeks, telecommuting from home, and long leaves of absence. But it also shows the gap between people's needs or desires and the reality of their work life (see box, below). For example: The study found that 79 percent of workers say they would like to have more flexibility. But 39 percent fear they would jeopardize their jobs or career advancement by using flexible work options.

That is why the institute and others are pushing employers to follow the pioneers of genuine flexibility - something that goes beyond marginal programs with a "mommy track" reputation. Congress is considering how better to help working families with the web of demands they face. Foundations are setting up workplace-flexibility awards.

Advocates never stray far from making the business case for flex time: Work-life balance is the top priority for 86 percent of employees, according to a study last year by Spherion, a recruiting and consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Turnover is expensive, and businesses need to prepare for an impending war for talent. Jobs are projected to outnumber workers by nearly 7 million in the coming decade, according to the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington.

While some companies have reduced flex benefits in recent years in the name of tight budgets, others warn that's shortsighted. "Looking at demographics ... a smart business person sees it's necessary," says Jim Wall, national managing director for human resources at Deloitte & Touche in New York. "If you have to drag some people kicking and screaming, so be it.... The old days are forever gone.... What we've seen with the high-talent market is, they'll leave for a place that is flexible."

Aha moment

The light bulb went on for Mr. Wall's company in the early 1990s, when managers realized how many people, especially women, were walking out the door because of a rigidity that their life circumstances could no longer bear. Even though women had been half the new hires for years, there were only seven of them in a group of 100 candidates for partner in 1992. A year-long task force helped the company emphasize "a holistic view of the life of the staff" and the need to shift away from the idea that face time equals productivity, Wall says. Now about 35 percent of partner candidates are women. About 2,000 employees (out of 30,000) are on reduced work schedules, and even 30 to 35 partners have flexible work arrangements. Turnover is down to 17 percent from 28 percent a decade ago.

Deloitte's conversion also sped up after its offices were destroyed by the hijacked planes on 9/11. Thanks to technology - and flexibility - the company was back serving clients within 24 hours. It became even clearer that employees' effectiveness was not so dependent on place.

Molly Hufton heard about Deloitte & Touche's efforts to retain women by offering more flexibility early in her career there. "I thought it would be all talk," she says. Now, nearly 10 years later, she's a believer. Three days a week she goes to the office in Chicago. For the other two she's at home with her infant and her 2-1/2 year old, occasionally taking business calls when they nap.

The biggest challenge, says the self-labeled type-A personality, is making sure she doesn't work much more than the 60 percent time she's arranged. But the real test of her boss's support came within the first six months of her part-time arrangement. Her day care shut down temporarily, and with no extended family in the area, she had to spend five weeks working from home. "I thought they'd say, 'Forget it!'" she says, but they gave her backup and told her to do whatever she needed to do.

"If Deloitte wasn't as flexible, I would have quit," Ms. Hufton says. Instead, she's been promoted to senior manager.

Stories such as Hufton's are promising, but far from universal. More than half of wage and salary workers don't have options such as working part time, or choosing the time they start work in the morning.

One major concern is a lack of "onramps" for those who take time out to raise children and then want to reenter their careers. "Despite all the work-life happy talk in organizations, women are often penalized," says Barbara Moses, a career consultant and author in Canada. "I've seen them do all the right things - keep their skills up to date, stay in touch with their employer - and still, three years later they're having trouble kick-starting their careers."

In response, some companies are offering longer leaves of absence and creating more ways for people to stay up to speed while they're away. But they're careful not to suggest that these and other flex options are only for mothers.

"We found that women were more vocal about flexibility, but men use it. It doesn't even matter if you're single or married - people are taking advantage of it in all walks of life," says Jim Sinocchi, director of diversity communications for IBM, which offers an array of flexible work options and helped fund the Family and Work Institute's study.

Elder care is a prime example of employees' demands at home. Twenty-one percent of households have one person who cared for an aging individual in the past year, and of those caregivers, 59 percent were working at the same time, according to the Work & Family Program of the New America Foundation, a public-policy institute in Washington.

And as baby boomers reach traditional retirement age, more employers are looking for ways to keep them engaged, even if only part time.

Then there are infinite individual reasons. "Sometimes people are just bored," says Ms. Moses, citing the example of a 48-year-old male executive who had "plateaued" and decided to spend a year taking art history and language classes in France.

Part-time success

For Peter Anderson, a single professional in Orlando, Fla., balancing all his activities became a priority in the early 1990s. Between work, church commitments, and overseeing some family rental properties, he found himself scheduled seven days a week. So he asked his supervisor at Convergys, a global billing-services company, about scaling back his time to four days. He was one of the first nonparents in his office to go part time.

A few years into the arrangement, Mr. Anderson reduced his work - and his salary - again, to three days a week. He's been offered promotions, but has turned them down because they'd require a full-time schedule. "Having balance in my life is much more valuable than trying to squeeze more hours and more responsibility in," he says. He's impressed that the company has found other ways besides promotions to acknowledge his contributions - such as substantial monetary awards.

The arrangement has solidified Anderson's loyalty to the company. "I don't think I could replicate this," he says. Because he built up his reputation for about five years before going part time, he wouldn't want to start over paying those dues somewhere else.

Changing mind-sets

Even in companies with leaders committed to work-life balance, changing mind-sets of some managers and full-time employees can be a lot of work.

"When someone is looking for a co-worker and they hear that they are at home that day, they are reluctant to call, but they need to understand that the person is working from home," says John Veihmeyer, managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office of accounting firm KPMG.

Telecommuting is one of the most-used flexibility tools in his office. Five years ago, he says, the culture would have dictated that workers be at their desks at 8:00 a.m., even if an hour later they'd have to drive nearly an hour back to an appointment near his home. Now the emphasis is on "working smarter" - logging in and working from home when it would be more productive, he says.

Telecommuting is also being promoted as a way to reduce the traffic congestion. In Washington, D.C., area, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Council of Governments are striving to have 50,000 more people working at home (or at telecommuting centers near home) at least one day a week.

Some companies already have so many mobile workers that they create opportunities for human connection. Some Deloitte offices fly their remote workers in every third Friday. At IBM, where about 30 percent of employees are permanently mobile, the company sponsors socials and teas. "People want to feel like they belong to a community," Mr. Sinocchi says. "There's an effort now to go back and do some more of this high-touch stuff."

Future work: a seven-day weekend?

For decades, Semco has taken the meaning of workplace flexibility to new levels. At this Brazilian conglomerate, employees not only choose their own schedules, they often choose which part of the business to work for and even how much they'll be paid. Because they share in the company's profits, they're motivated to make choices that improve productivity. Semco had $212 million in revenue in 2003. Turnover among its 3,000 employees is about 1 percent.

Many executives from around the world have visited to see what makes Semco tick, but when CEO Ricardo Semler surveys the landscape of most workplaces, he sees slow progress on the flexibility front. Most, he says, are simply trying to manage a change forced upon them by computer technology that lets people work from anywhere. Rather than give up command-and-control management practices, they want software to track what remote workers are doing, he says.

"The essence to us [at Semco] was that people who are free people, who [can act] based on self-interest, who can balance their own lives, are much happier, more productive people," he says in phone interview while he was away from his post as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. "If you take a business call on a Sunday afternoon, for instance, why not go to the movies on a Monday?"

Semler, whose most recent book on Semco is titled "The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works," rejects the notion that people won't want to work if given freedom.

"There really are only two things people can do that make their lives worthwhile: work and love.... How many people know how not to work at all? That's a very rare competence," he says. "I know at least a dozen or two [independently wealthy people] who could sit on beach or just roam around world ... and after a month they can't do it anymore."

Of course, trendy programs in the name of flexibility won't necessarily improve the work culture, he adds. "It's a bit like the casual-Friday thing.... To be a little bit flexible ... and at the same time have the rest of the organization be rigid, will have very little effect. Anyone who wants to develop a more flexible workplace will have to count on years [of experimentation and implementation], which people don't like to hear."

The many paths to a flexible workplace

Workplace flexibility takes various forms and is gaining acceptance, says a Families and Work Institute report. Some forms are more popular than others. For example:

Flex time: In 1992, 29 percent of workers could choose their starting and quitting time within a certain range of hours, and an additional 18 percent could choose on a daily basis. By 2002, it was up to 43 percent and 23 percent, respectively. About 73 percent say they use their flex-time options.

Part time: 47 percent of workers can choose to work part time, but only 17 percent do so. Of those who work full time, 18 percent would prefer to work part time. (Among women, 24 percent have this preference.)

Compressed workweeks: 42 percent can choose to work the same number of hours in 4 or 4-1/2 days a week. (One pilot program found that among workers with compressed workweeks, favorable ratings for work/life balance went up to 57 percent from 45 percent, according to a study by Prof. Allen Kraut of Baruch College in New York City.)

Work at home/telecommuting: 2 percent work primarily from home; 9 percent work from home for part of every week; 43 percent say they'd like to have this option.

Paid time off: 58 percent of high-wage employees and 28 percent of low-wage employees have paid time off to care for children.

Informal flexibility: 63 percent say it is "not hard at all" or "not too hard" to take time off during the day to address personal issues. Women spend an average of 40 minutes each workday online for nonwork activity, such as banking and e-mailing friends.

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