Why don't employers offer more part-time and other flexible arrangements? Employees want such flexibility, families want it, and it would increase productivity. Employers' inertia seems to come from fear of change and the perception that flexible or reduced hours will be construed as unprofessional by the marketplace. They hope employee interest will dissipate before they have to rethink schedules, advancement, compensation, and benefits.
But employee interest won't wane. This desire for flexibility is a reflection of larger social trends and shifting organizational needs. Competitive pressures are forcing many firms to restructure and downsize. Disillusioned employees increasingly take this to mean that organizations are uncaring. As a result, many workers regard career commitment as individual professional advancement within a variety of work situations rather than one organization. They are turning back to family and community ties for a sense of belonging.
But families and communities - like all worthwhile enterprises - require a commitment from all members to be involved, to communicate, to organize activities and take part in them. Overwhelmed men and women who have tried to juggle two full-time traditional careers while raising a family and possibly caring for elderly relatives are seeking flexible work to put control, meaning, and a sense of balance back into their lives.
Not coincidentally, the most determined, creative, and productive of those wanting flexible work are the first to leave rigid organizations. They negotiate arrangements with the most forward-thinking companies or piece together a variety of freelance or entrepreneurial jobs. Innovative firms in the Silicon Valley, for example, have attracted and retained some of the best employees by offering flextime, job-sharing, telecommuting, and part-time work. These organizations and their clients have recognized that 40 hours of work per week isn't a requirement for success in the marketplace.
The firms that adapt may also be enjoying an often-overlooked productivity advantage of flexible work. I know from being self-employed for almost 10 years that my productivity with a flexible schedule is dramatically higher than when I worked a standard 40-hour office job. I no longer fritter away official work hours in drawn-out meetings, running personal errands by phone, balancing my checkbook, or visiting with friends. I can concentrate on work because I schedule it to complement my home responsibilities.
Many employers continue to insist the 40-hour work week is sacred. But imagine a work week broken into 10-hour segments. Employees might opt for a 10-hour segment of home and child-care duty, another segment of concentrated writing or analytical work, a third segment of outwardly focused tasks such as sales or service, and a fourth with a physical component.
Opponents of flexible work point to the difficulty in administering benefits when workers are not on a regular full-time schedule. But perhaps it is time to decouple benefits from employment and instead give employees higher salaries to buy their own insurance and pension plans. Evidence suggests employees would respond well to this flexibility. Many already choose between HMOs and traditional insurance. And many benefit packages now give employees choices like those the self-employed have had for years through professional insurance pools.
There is a great deal of room for creative management of institutions and personal careers to make more time for family, community, and productive work. If handled right, these adaptations may also bring back that feeling of organizational loyalty that is so rapidly disappearing.
*Ann Symonds is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.