Stretching the rules

A tight job market makes firms more flexible in defining the workplace

Autodesk faced a tough choice: Lose Catherine Crosbie and her husband, both hardworking, valuable employees, or accommodate their somewhat peculiar workplace needs.

The couple wanted to continue working for the San Rafael, Calif., high-tech firm, but they wanted to keep their distance - 200 miles of it.

They were moving to Reno, Nev., a place that rates high in quality of life, low in cost of living, and nowhere on the list of places where Autodesk has offices.

Nonetheless, the company agreed to keep Ms. Crosbie and husband Adam Felt, surprising even them.

"I was fully convinced I was going to have to quit my job," says Crosbie, a software tester who has been telecommuting since last fall. "I couldn't ask for more. I'm getting my dream job and working from my home."

Just a few years ago, such an arrangement would have been unheard of. But as the economy has changed, so has the job market.

Companies face increasing pressure to recruit and retain top talent. And that makes them increasingly responsive to meeting employees' needs. And flexibility tops the list.

Not only are businesses granting flexible work arrangements to veteran workers, they're also handing flexible schedules to new hires.

No doubt companies have a long way to go in giving workers more control over their time. But they're starting to get the picture.

"Companies are more receptive to flexibility," says Nadine Mockler, co-founder of Flexible Resources, a Cos Cob, Conn. firm that places people in flexible jobs.

"I don't think they start out thinking it's a smart idea," she says, "but companies can't find people to hire, so they're almost forced into it."

In an era of two-income families, flexibility - whether that means flexible start and stop times, working from home or part time - is increasingly important to the American worker.

"Time is just more valuable than money right now," says Roy Young, director of the Los Angeles office of Flexible Resources.

A survey by the company last year of more than 500 women clients seeking flexible work arrangements found that 64 percent had already quit or were planning to quit their jobs because of lack of flexibility.

"Every employer we work with has done an internal survey [on flexibility], and it comes back loud and clear that employees are going to leave if they don't get it," says Barney Olmstead, co-director of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco consulting firm.

Take Cathy Berey.

For almost six years she worked 60-hour weeks as vice president of human resources at Ames Department Stores based in Rocky Hill, Conn.

Her banker husband also clocked long hours, and with three small children, home life was hectic.

"We thought, 'Do we really want our children in child care everyday from 7:30 in the morning until 7 at night?' " says Ms. Berey, who has an eight-year-old and four-year-old twins. "I also didn't want to entirely give up my career because I like what I did."

So in March, she took a job working three days a week as the human-resources manager for Icon Office Solutions, an office supply firm in Glastonbury, Conn.

As the number of companies offering flexible-work options continues to rise - so does usage.

In a recent survey, 61 percent of 1,800 US companies said they offer some sort of flexible work arrangement, up from 40 percent in 1993, according to William M. Mercer, a human resources consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

At Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, Calif., as many as 500 employees job share - a 10 percent increase over the past year. And 10 percent of the computermaker's 67,000 US employees telecommute on a regular basis - nearly a 25 percent jump in the past year.

At Autodesk, where none of the 45-plus software testers had ever worked from home, it was a matter of keeping a good employee.

"I know Catherine has done good work, and I did not want to lose her," says Srinivasa Venkatarman, Ms. Crosbie's supervisor. "If other people had approached me, I wouldn't be as supportive."

The arrangement seems to work well. In fact, he says, Crosbie is more motivated and gets more work done.

"You are going to get a much more loyal employee," says Ms. Mockler of Flexible Resources.

"A loyal employee means your absenteeism drops," she says, "and longevity grows. And when longevity grows, you don't have the turnover you once had."

"It's mostly psychological," she adds. "You give a little; you will get so much back in return."

Yet, while some companies are stretching, most stiffen up at the idea.

"Even though flexibility has grown, it's growing quietly," Mockler says.

In the Flexible Resources survey of 500 women clients, 59 percent never asked their employers for flexible arrangements. They not only assumed the answer would be "no" but that there would be a penalty for asking - a perception that they were less than serious about their jobs.

Of those who did ask, 63 percent said their employer granted the request initially but did not follow through.

Those who were turned down cited this as the No. 1 reason: "We can't give it to you and not to others."

"It's one of the biggest myths surrounding this whole thing. It just doesn't happen," says Mockler, citing that most people can't afford to only work part time.

Her company, she says, has placed dozens of people in flexible work arrangements at Kraft Foods.

"Kraft posts all open jobs internally before it can look outside [the company]," she says. "Nobody internally took them."

Even Berey never asked about working part time in her human resources job at Ames - even though she helped launch the company's part-time work program.

"When you got above a certain level, [flexibility] was not an option," she says. "I didn't bother asking because I knew the philosophy."

When she told her boss why she was leaving, he offered the option of part-time work, but she declined.

"For me, I know that five days a week at Ames is 60 hours a week. Three days would be 40 hours a week," Berey says. "That would be defeating the purpose."

Flexing the flex muscle

Here are a few tips to help you pitch a flexible work arrangement to your boss.

* Focus on the business reasons. Don't talk about how you need more time with your children; your boss is most interested in how he or she can make the department more productive.

* Write up a plan. Outline exactly what responsibilities you will retain and how your other responsibilities will be handled. Plenty of plans have been sabotaged by bosses who still expect an employee to do five days of work in three days.

* Be creative; have options ready. If your position must be done full time, suggest a telecommuting arrangement in which specific work is done at home. Or come up with a job-share partner.

* Do your homework. Find out how other companies in your field approach flexibility. If the competition offers innovative staffing options, your company may feel competitive pressure to move in that direction.

* Don't take no for an answer. Find out your boss's specific objections and ask to come back with a revised plan that addresses each of those concerns.

Source: Flexible Resources

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