Good Read

Spoonfeedin WOrld

Lifestyle – In Hard Times, Re-Commit to Flex Time

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

A major milestone is within reach: By October or November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women will outnumber men in the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. While I’m naturally delighted to see something approaching employment parity, I’m much more concerned about the reason for this historic reversal — and its ramifications.

Women are gaining the vast majority of jobs in the few sectors of the economy that are growing. That’s the good news. Although 80 percent of the 5.1 million people who have lost their jobs in this recession are men, women have not been taking their places so much as expanding their own spaces.

The not-so-good news is that many working wives and mothers are now the sole breadwinner. Since women shoulder a disproportionate load of family responsibility and earn 20 percent less than men, this puts extra pressure on an already strained work-life balance.

Adding power to the punch, at precisely the moment when the need for flexible work arrangements is going through the roof, it’s becoming harder and harder to take it. In researching my forthcoming book, Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down, we found that face-time obligations more than doubled between June 2008 and December 2008, from 22 percent to 55 percent. Professionals worried about their job security don’t feel comfortable asking for a staggered workday or a telecommuting arrangement. Instead, they’re chaining themselves to their desks to prove they’re indispensable — even if they know they could up their output at home.

Moreover, it’s been proven that flexibility is a powerful lure in recruiting and motivating top talent. Employees are able to concentrate without being interrupted by phone calls, meetings, and other workplace distractions. Eliminating watercooler gossip sessions — a significant time sink in a high-anxiety environment — is a huge boost to productivity. And knowing that an employer trusts and respects its people enough to help them do what it takes to perform better — through remote work options, staggered schedules, and reduced-hour arrangements — pays back in greater appreciation and loyalty.

An increasing number of organizations are responding, from corporations to local governments. Three years ago, the city of Houston, Texas, promoted flextime as a way to ease its notoriously congested commutes. The initial two-week “Flex in the City” trial was so successful — saving time, slashing workers’ stress by 58 percent and nearly doubling their productivity — that Houston has reaffirmed its commitment with two-week programs every year since. Some 200 companies have participated, from industries ranging from oil and gas, finance, utilities, technology, engineering, architecture, and breweries.

Some leading-edge companies are newly committing to flex as a money-saving strategy in tough times. The proverbial light bulb went on in Citigroup’s corporate real estate division when it discovered that too many real light bulbs were shining in too many empty offices. The result: Citi’s Alternative Workplace Strategies, a push to provide a greener workplace through office-sharing and remote work. Launched in 2006 in New York, London and Miami, the program will be rolled out globally this year. Citi hopes it will shave the company’s need for office space by 15 percent over the next several years, which will translate into significant savings. The benefits to employees: incalculable.

One of flex’s long-time conundrums for both employers and employees has been that it is, well, too flexible, doled out as a favor on a case-by-case basis or perceived as an entitlement. Last year, Sodexo, a leading provider of food and facilities management solutions, cut through the confusion with a simple formal flexible work program. Eligible employees — workers with no past or current performance issues — propose their own flex arrangements; managers assess whether the arrangements will allow them to meet performance and productivity goals. Trial periods and semi-annual reviews gauge success and fix problems before they mushroom. No stress, no mess.

Formalizing flextime has one other unsung but important consequence: It takes the stigma out of asking for time off. Knowing that there’s some give — and not all take — in the workplace does powerful things for high-performers on a tightrope. That may be the biggest benefit of all.

Advertisements

October 14, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: