Trends in the Workplace: It’s About Time
Working parents want one thing: A break.
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 handle modern family life, whether that means telecommuting, job-sharing, going part-time, compressed work weeks or any arrangement that mutually benefits company and employee.
In an interview with Andrea Kay, an expert on workplace issues, I asked if companies were moving toward non-traditional work arrangements in greater numbers. With the surge in technology, which makes time-shifting possible in other parts of our lives, surely there must be more flexibility in the work place. But Kay, author of four books and over 900 articles on the workforce since 1988, wasn't quick to agree.
"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. 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 it," says Kay, meaning flexibility in the workplace. "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, "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."
And there's little relief at home. For many parents, it's a biological imperative to raise kids who can fend for themselves, preferably as successful adults. That can mean extracurricular activities, and lots of them. Work may seep home through e-mail, lap tops and cell phones, but we're also filling our personal time to capacity with extra demands. "Parents aren't just trying to come home for dinner like the old days," says Kay. "Kids do more outside interests, have more choices, and that creates a time frenzy." Something has to give.
Parents and Flexibility
Anna Millar, and Meghan Gosk would agree that the 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 the day on Wednesdays, Millar is the M.B.A. Program's Associate Director at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Thursdays and Fridays, she is home with her four children, Ben (9), twins Ally and Chris (7) and Will (2).
For Gosk, it's a similar schedule, but in reverse. Mondays and Tuesdays, she's home with her two daughters, Taylor (8) and Kelley (6), and for the rest of the week she is, like Anna, the M.B.A. Program Associate Director. Both women share an office, a job title, a schedule and, in order to make it all possible, 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 an interview on a Monday. "But we planned meetings today so we both came in." On "Meghan days", Millar can expect to talk with her coworker several times throughout the day, and same for Gosk on "Anna days." When I ask them 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 job share possible. And according to their boss, Michael Stipanek, Millar and Gosk bring a full-time approach to their part-time positions. Win-win.
When I ask the women for a list of activities their kids do, Millar recommends that I sit down. Together, Gosk's two kids 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 chase of their weekly schedules.
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 (whenworkworks.org), 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 workers, in order to reduce work-life conflict, were most likely to "ask for greater workplace flexibility."
Our own survey showed that North Carolinians feel the same way. Each year, Carolina Parenting (publisher of Piedmont Parent, Charlotte Parent and Carolina Parent magazines) honors Family-Friendly 40 companies located in North Carolina. This year, in addition to the Family-Friendly nominations, we asked our readers to take a survey. Over 1,000 readers responded and gave us a sample of the benefits employees value the most. On-site day care, adoption benefits, lactation rooms, dry cleaning or movie rentals - we wanted to know what our readers cared about the most.
Our 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 of 2007 and discovered that, among other things, that many of our readers valued flexibility. We learned that 60 percent of highly educated workers (college degree or higher) would leave their current job for a position that offered more flexibility, and ranked flexibility as the number one reason why they would leave their jobs. For highly educated professionals not in the workforce, finding a position with flexibility was their top priority for returning to work. (To view the full results of our survey, visit xxxxxxparent.com.)
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 workforce, who rank work-life balance as a top career priority, they need to get creative about how, when and where work gets done."
In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey discovered that only 21 percent of working mothers with children under the age of 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 R.O.W.E., or 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." 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," says Hatcher.
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.
Andrea Kay, noting that more and more employees want flexible work arrangements, agreed that companies will have to adjust the way they manage their workforce. "But you still have to present yourself as a problem-solver. 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.
A few companies specialize in matching employees with alternative work arrangements:
HR OptIn (www.hroptin.com) is a national company that helps human resource professionals, specialists, administrators, managers, directors and experts in human resource find flexible work arrangements with Fortune 500 companies and more.
Flex-Time Lawyers (www.flextimelawyers.org) is a national consulting firm that advises the profession on work/life balance and the retention and promotion of women attorneys. Also provides recruiting services.
Moms Corp (www.momcorps.com) supplies top-tier professionals to corporations on an as-needed basis, while enabling individuals seeking flexibility to engage in challenging work. Based in Charlotte.
Balancing Professionals (www.balancingprofessionals.com) is a niche and advisory staffing firm that connects businesses with a unique pool of high-caliber professionals who seek part-time or job-share opportunities. Based in the Triangle.
My Part-Time Pro (www.myparttimepro.com) connects accomplished and educated individuals can find meaningful flexible employment opportunities. Currently based in New York and Philadelphia with plans to go nation by end of 2007.