In the Workplace, It's All About Time
Posted September 4, 2007 12:14 p.m. EDT
More money would be nice, and medical benefits and vacation time go without saying. But at the top of the list, parents want a company that offers some kind of workplace flexibility. They want to tinker with the 40-hour work week so it can better mesh with family life, whether that means telecommuting, job sharing, part-time work or compressed work weeks, or any arrangement that mutually benefits the company and employee.
Despite the surge in technology, which allows flexibility in other parts of life, Andrea Kay, an expert on workplace issues, said companies aren't moving toward nontraditional work arrangements in great numbers.
“For some companies, (alternative work arrangements) have been part of their overall strategy or policy for years, and they think about how to be good employers,” says Kay, who has written four books and more than 900 articles on the work force since 1988. “For other companies, they aren’t there yet.”
Twelve years ago, Kay wrote about job sharing, but as a wide-sweeping trend, companies have been slow to offer a menu of alternative possibilities to their employees.
“People are becoming more needy for (flexibility in the workplace),” she says. “Demands have increased on workloads. People have had to take on more – much more – and they want less demand on their time.”
This workload creep persists from office to home, she says. “There’s a much greater need to respond to business outside the office. Taking phone calls on vacation, in the middle of the night … there’s so much accessibility to connect and contact people, and people are inundated.”
Home doesn't offer much relief, either. Many parents juggle lots of extracurricular activities. Work can seep into home life through e-mail, laptops and cell phones, and parents also fill personal time to capacity with extra demands.
“Parents aren’t just trying to come home for dinner like the old days,” Kay says. “Kids do more outside interests, have more choices, and that creates a time frenzy.”
A Flexible Arrangement
Anna Millar and Meghan Gosk would agree that days can be hectic. Presented with the option of scaling back work hours or sacrificing something in the family schedule, Millar and Gosk chose a flexible work arrangement.
On Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays, Millar is the MBA program associate director at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. On Thursdays and Fridays she is home with her four children: Ben, 9; twins Ally and Chris, 7; and Will, 2.
Gosk has a similar schedule, but in reverse. On Mondays and Tuesdays, she’s home with her two daughters – Taylor, 8, and Kelley, 6 – and on the other days she is, like Anna, the MBA program associate director.
Both women share an office, a job title, a schedule and an e-mail address. On Wednesdays when their schedules overlap, each one occupies separate desks in their shared office.
“Today is usually an 'Anna day,'” Millar explains during a Monday interview. “But we planned meetings today, so we both came in.”
On “Meghan days,” Millar can expect to talk with her co-worker several times throughout the day, and the same for Gosk on “Anna days.” When asked if they could work this way without e-mail or cell phones, they answer in unison, “Absolutely not.”
Their co-workers agree that a common e-mail address and excellent communication skills make the arrangement possible. Their boss, Michael Stipanek, says Millar and Gosk also bring a full-time approach to their part-time positions.
Together, Gosk’s two children and Millar’s four participate in ice hockey, soccer, swim team, gymnastics, theater, piano lessons, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, Sunday school and Girl Scouts. The phrase “work-life balance” seems too hollow for the bounding, high-speed pace of their weekly schedules.
What Working Parents Need
What, exactly, is work-life balance? Most parents would settle for anything less than total exhaustion, so the idea of balance might feel a touch greedy.
But according to the Families and Work Institute, employees are working more hours than they did 25 years ago. And over the same 25-year period, the number of workers who felt they could not accomplish what they needed to get done during the work week rose from 40 percent in 1977 to 52 percent in 2002. More time at work can only mean less time with family, and in the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce, also conducted by the Families and Work Institute, researchers discovered that 67 percent of all parents say they don’t have enough time with their children.
Focusing on flexibility is our generation’s way of asking for a correction. Economists point out that the average modern family has to work harder to achieve the same standard of living our parents did a generation ago. In focus groups and other research, Families and Work Institute found that to reduce work-life conflict, workers were most likely to “ask for greater workplace flexibility.”
A Carolina Parenting Inc. survey showed that North Carolinians feel the same way. Each year, Carolina Parenting, the publisher of Carolina Parent, Charlotte Parent and Piedmont Parent magazines, honors 40 family-friendly companies in North Carolina. This year, in addition to the Family-Friendly 40 nominations, we asked our readers to take a survey. More than 1,000 readers responded, providing information about the benefits employees value the most. On-site day care, adoption benefits, lactation rooms, dry cleaning or movie rental — we wanted to know what our readers cared about the most at work.
The survey was a joint effort with Balancing Professionals, a Triangle-based company that advises businesses about the changing workplace and helps connect professionals with alternative work arrangements. We posted a simple survey online from April through July and discovered that, among other things, many North Carolina parents valued flexibility in the workplace.
Results showed that 60 percent of highly educated workers – college degree or higher – would leave their current job for a position that offered more flexibility, and flexibility was ranked as the top reason why these employees would leave their jobs. For highly educated professionals not in the workforce, finding a position with flexibility was the top priority for returning to work.
Creative Solutions and Options
Kella Hatcher and Maryanne Perrin, co-founders of Balancing Professionals, help advise companies on workplace trends. “If employers want to catch up with today’s work force, who rank work-life balance as a top career priority, they need to get creative about how, when and where work gets done,” Hatcher says.
In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey discovered that only 21 percent of working mothers with children younger than 18 viewed full-time work as the best arrangement, down from 32 percent in 1997. Sixty percent said a part-time job would be best, up from 48 percent 10 years ago. The study did not detail other work arrangements, although part time tends to be the most common workplace option offered, even in companies that don’t consider work-life issues to be a priority.
According to Hatcher and Perrin, one of the best examples of a creative workplace is Results Only Work Environment, made famous by Best Buy.
"Employees are encouraged to work when and where they like and aren’t obligated to work a set number of hours as long as they get the job done,” Perrin says.
Technology has largely made this kind of arrangement possible, and while it took training and planning to create wide-reaching change, Best Buy reaped rewards. “They saw a 35 percent increase in productivity, dramatic decrease in turnover, increase in management performance and customer satisfaction – all of which benefit their bottom line,” Hatcher says.
Flexibility doesn’t mean that everyone wants to job-share or work part time; it means employees want options. They want to figure out a schedule that helps them get the job done, both at work and at home. Not everyone can afford to scale back hours and pay. But some employees – highly experienced and valued workers – may want the ability to work from home or to compress the work week and free up a day or two.
Noting that more employees want flexible work arrangements, Kay agreed that companies will have to adjust the way they manage their work force.
"But you still have to present yourself as a problem-solver,” she says. “Companies still want a level of expertise, communication skills, people skills, a good work ethic. It’s a hard package to find.”
When it comes to getting and keeping a good job, being a valuable employee is one trend that will never change.