Flex Schedules Can Balance Work, Home Time

Most companies that offer family friendly benefits don't do so because it's nice and charitable. They implement such programs because it makes smart business sense. Those employers know that offering flexibility helps companies to recruit and retain the best talent. They also know it helps improve productivity because every study shows that people are generally happier with their work when they receive such accommodations.

More and more companies recognize this bottom-line benefit, and they're studying -- and in some cases taking the lead from -- the best practices of top employers. In 1999 only 18 companies on Fortune magazine's list of Best Places to Work offered telecommuting. Today, 79 do. That's progress!

There's more good news, but also some discouraging bits too:

Unfortunately, many managers still place the ultimate premium on face time. They believe that productivity is measured by hours in the office. There is also a notion in the workplace that when a woman says she wants flexibility, it's really code for her wanting to come in at 10 and leave at 2. Wrong. That's not what most women want or need, and yet such stereotypical views do little to help us achieve our goals.

On the flip side, flexibility in the workplace now comes in many forms, which means that many of us can ask for and receive some type of accommodation. The first step is figuring out what the options may be for. Keep in mind that not every position lends itself to one definition of flexibility, so even if you desire a specific accommodation, it might not be possible in your line of work.

Here are several scenarios to consider:

Condensed work week. If your standard week is 40 hours -- typically broken into five days, eight hours per day -- could you perform your position in four days at 10 hours per day? Even if this isn't possible every single week, you might convince your boss to consider it even just once or twice a month, which would give you a free weekday to tend to personal and family needs. Telecommuting. Instead of reporting for duty to your employer's offices all five days a week, can your position be performed from your home one or two days a week? This would require you to have -- or your employer to provide -- whatever equipment and supplies are needed for your job, including dedicated phone line, computer, high speed Internet access and so forth This eliminates a commute and typically leads to increased productivity among already-motivated employees.

If you're easily distracted or you don't have dedicated space in which to work from, this might not be a viable option. Many employers won't allow this type of arrangement if you're using it in lieu of baby-sitting services. They want to ensure that you're putting in your full hours even from home.

Vacation by the hour. Even though it's more difficult to keep track of time used, some employers are starting to allow workers to use their allotted vacation time by the hour instead of by the day. This enables working parents to attend school functions or doctor's appointments without missing a full day of work. The benefit to employers is better productivity -- more work gets done if an employee is present for part of the day than not at all. In other cases, employers sometimes allow staffers to convert unused sick days into vacation days.

Alternative work schedule. The federal government and many private employers allow some employees to select arrival and departure times that suit their personal needs within the working day. For example, some people might want to avoid a heavy commute, while others may benefit from seeing their kids off to school in the morning. These employees are still putting in the same number of hours in the office as their peers, but they're not necessarily the traditional 9 to 5 hours.

Access to concierge services. Many employers recognize that life happens while we're at work and they're offering benefits that help the rank and file to better manage career and home simultaneously. Among the concierge services offered: Dinner-to-go via their on-site cafeterias to help parents who work a bit later avoid the rat-race of getting home to cook for their families; help with dog walking, routine car maintenance, a fill-in at home who can wait for the cable guy to show up, and other tasks that would normally take you away from work during the week or away from kids on the weekend.

Part-time work. Some women would gladly accept reduced pay and benefits to receive a reduced work schedule. Many companies will honor this arrangement for high achievers because it's more cost-effective than losing them altogether. Some employers recognize that you already have the knowledge and training, which would enable you to achieve the same (or better) results on a part-time basis as someone else could on a full-time basis without the same training.

Job sharing. This is perhaps the most difficult of all scenarios to secure because it requires the moon and the stars to align in ways that aren't always realistic. Even though some job-sharing relationships work successfully, the jury is out on the overall effectiveness of such arrangements.

Making Your Case

Even though many of us are intimidated by the thought of approaching our bosses with requests for special accommodations for fear of being shot down, keep in mind that there is no other way to receive the flexibility you so greatly desire.

It's unrealistic to assume that government legislation or a change in company policy will miraculously satisfy our flexible wishes. If you want to make something happen, you must be willing to speak up and lead the charge yourself.

To figure out what type of flexible accommodation might work best for you, consider these issues:

  • How will such an arrangement affect your responsibilities, your key constituents (co-workers, managers, clients, customers) and your employer?
  • Have other employees in your company used flexible arrangements? What is/was the outcome? What insights can they share with you about the challenges and triumphs they experienced? Sometimes there's a leader within your company who has successfully championed this issue and could serve as a helping hand as you navigate this process.
  • What benefits would you and your employer realize if you were granted the flexible accommodation that you seek? Every manager wants to know that the job will get done even better by making special accommodations for you. You can point to any number of benefits to the company: increased productivity, higher morale, less stress and burnout, and higher retention and lower turnover. Any one of these on its own is not insignificant.

Put It on Paper.

Start by making your case in writing. This isn't a topic that you want to wing with your boss. Instead, put your talking points in writing as if you were preparing an important presentation or speech. Even if you were getting up to lead a PTA meeting at your child's school, you'd get your ducks in a row in advance. This is no different.

Reiterate your commitment to your position and your career. Focus on your strong performance and acknowledge that you're seeking a flexible accommodation, not an entitlement. Be clear that the basis of your request is to strengthen your quality of life at work and at home, while simultaneously delivering even better results for your employer.

Explain what you believe will be the benefits to both you and the company, while realizing that your manager will care much more about the benefits and impact to the company than to you.

If you sense that your request may be met with resistance, propose a trial period. Your boss doesn't have to commit to a permanent plan right out of the gate. Instead, suggest a three-month trial with specific benchmarks to measure the success. Remember that the onus will be on you to maintain effective communication and results if you're granted this opportunity.

If your request is rejected, ask your manager what you can do on your end to have the company reconsider such an arrangement. Ask if there's a time frame in which you should follow up. During that waiting period, continue to gather more ammunition to support your case. This may include articles on successful flexible benefits offered by your company's competitors or testimonials from people in similar positions who benefit from such arrangements.

In the coming weeks on "Good Morning America," we'll continue to tackle this issue with specific strategies and solutions for women in all lines of work. Be sure to tune in for those segments.

To connect directly with Tory Johnson or for other information on career advancement, visit www.womenforhire.com