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Why Is Workplace Flexibility So Fraught?

It’s 2013. Our society is wired, mobile, global and technologically connected to the max. On a very practical level, that means many of us can work efficiently from anywhere—and at unconventional hours, too.

As moms try to lean in—or even lean back in—the infamous "work-life balance" is always looming. But while there is a variety of options, from telecommuting to flex time to job-sharing, companies aren't always eager to jump on the flex-hour train. Some employees and managers find these arrangements disruptive (Yahoo, Bank of America and Best Buy have recently ended their telecommuting options). Others, however—Ernst & Young, for one—have recognized the merits of this system and embraced it.

Mom Corps, a staffing agency geared toward mothers, recently conducted a survey and found that 42 percent of working adults were willing to give up some percentage of their salary for more flexibility at work. In fact, three in five agreed that flexibility was one of the key factors when evaluating a job prospect.

What does it take to make the flex option work—and without disruption? We reached out to experts, and to a few working women, for a broader perspective.

The Case for Flex Time

Karen,* a secretary at the New York State Insurance Fund, has found that her flex-time arrangement really helps with her work-life balance and quality of life. Being able to go into the office as early as 7:30 a.m. means she can get out at 3:30 p.m., no stigma or sideways glances attached. “This schedule allows me to pick my daughter up from school. I don’t have to rely on others,” she says.

When executed properly, with skilled, sensitive managers and responsible and capable employees, proponents of flex time say the practice can produce wonderful results. Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother magazine, agrees. Every academic study that looks at productivity, health and wellness, stress and absenteeism, the minute you give people the power to control when and where they work, and you judge them on the work getting done and not the face time, all of those numbers change," says Owens, who regularly conducts research on the topic. "Absenteeism goes down, stress levels go down, and everything else, like engagement and productivity, goes up. It’s all good.”

Carmen Wong Ulrich, assistant industry professor at New York University PolyTech, personal finance expert and mom, had this to say: "The common perception, especially among folks without children or aging parents, or just traditional men in general, is that women who take time from work to attend to children's illnesses or to see a performance or drive an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment are somehow slacking off. The truth is that the ability to juggle multiple demands between family and work is a valuable skill, and many working moms are the most efficient workers of all."

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*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The Thorny Side

When it comes to why many companies are hesitant about adopting flex-time practices, Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a former recruiter and career expert with SixFigureStart.com, cites several reasons.

Employers, she says, don't want to deal with exceptions. They fear that if they consent to one request, they'll have to consent to all. There is also the practical side: “Employers worry about logistics—how to keep data safe as the telecommuter uses files offsite; how to maintain collaboration if people are following different schedules; and how to ensure coverage if there needs to be physical presence in the office," she says.

But not every company sees it that way. Christine,* a New York mom who works full time in the media industry, was told by her boss when she was pregnant that she’d be able to work one day a week from home when she came back from maternity leave. She was elated. “But after I'd been back at work for about three months, I was told that I ‘couldn't expect this to last forever’ and that I needed to be back in the office five days a week. I was crushed,” says Christine.

Ceniza-Levine adds that employers often don’t see the value of flex for them, “They only see it as a value to the employee, so it seems like a lot of work for no benefit.”

Troubles can come not only from managers, but also from coworkers. “Even though my boss told me that my flex time was done, I think he was largely pressured to do so by a female colleague who had been hostile toward me since I'd returned from maternity leave," Christine says.

"I used to be 'that person' who answered emails at all hours and was always available to help out in whatever way was needed, but with a baby at home, I couldn't—and wouldn't—do that anymore," she adds. "And I think that pissed her off, because she's sacrificed a lot of her personal life for her career."

Owens recognizes that there are times when everyone should be together and that there are reasons to collaborate in person, but believes that you need to respect the process of how a worker is getting the work done. “If they are not getting it done, that’s a management issue and you need to deal with that as a management issue. I don’t think flex is to blame.”

Manager Accountability

In order to truly implement an effective flex environment, Owens believes that it all comes down to management. “The big thing to me is manager training and accountability. You can have the best company policy; you can have voices from the top saying that they are into flexibility and that they support it, but then you need to train managers on how to execute flexibility, and when and how to grant flexible work requests.”

Allison O'Kelly, founder and CEO of Mom Corps, agrees. “Studies have proven that professionals who work remotely are often more productive, as they can squeeze in more work each day and maintain control of their own time. But these employees and the process needs to be managed, not just instituted, otherwise it will fail."

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"Think of Yahoo and Best Buy," she says. "We also run into issues with micromanagers who are afraid of relinquishing control. But that kind of environment is stifling for professionals.” O'Kelly feels that employers shouldn’t need to watch over employees’ shoulders to make sure they are doing their work, because success can be effectively measured through achieved goals.

Ending the Stigma

Despite high demand for work flexibility, employees can still take a hit for capitalizing on the work-life policies put in place by their companies. Some are offered less-than-stellar job assignments, and others get passed over for deserved promotions.

“There once was a time when a woman was either a stay-at-home mom or a professional. There was no in-between option because alternative work practices and flex time weren’t practiced," says O'Kelly. "Some of that is based on the work and technology that was available; some of it was attitudes around the idea of the family unit."

"It’s almost as if society believes that those who “detour” to flexible work arrangements do so because they can’t endure juggling work and family life.”

Christine had been with her company for four years, and she thought she'd proven her work ethic. “I was stunned that my working from home—and I was working, not playing in the park or something—was taken away with seemingly no reason. Also, my co-workers are all fairly liberal, so I thought they'd be more understanding of a new parent's plight. It was after my boss told me that my arrangement was done that I realized nothing about it had been put in writing, which now makes me wonder if they'd planned to do this bait-and-switch all along.”

Ceniza-Levine recommends that employees make a business case about how the increased productivity is going to add to the employer’s bottom line. “Solve the logistical issues by providing a clear plan for how you can work flexibly and still produce results. Be exceptional—show how your work, and therefore your value to the organization, warrants that they agree to your request, even if it is an exception,” says Ceniza-Levine.

Full Transparency, on Both Sides

When it comes to discussing flex-time options, experts say to come clean—always. “Women should be very upfront and clear about expectations on both ends—when project updates will be made, hours in the day when you're unavailable,” says NYU Polytech's Ulrich. “For example, I'm usually not available from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily because that's when I pick up my daughter, do homework, dinner, bath and bed.” However, after 8 p.m., Ulrich says she fires up the computer if she needs to.

Owens also believes in full transparency by letting people know where you are, how to reach you, and telling them what you are working on. “Communication is key. Find out how to be involved in meetings and just stay hooked in. If you are asking for flex and you don’t have it, I think a really good thing to do is to propose it on a trial basis, because the word 'forever’ scares people into thinking that you are never coming to the office again!”

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Ceniza-Levine has found that the most common complaint from colleagues is when the policy isn’t clearly understood. “People don’t understand why one request was approved and not others, or people aren’t clear about how work will get done,” she says.

Another complaint is if the policy only covers one group, such as working parents. This pits one interest over others. “This is why having a clear value proposition for flexibility, and having clearly defined processes for how work will get done, how collaboration and coverage will still happen, is so important," Ceniza-Levine says. "Not just for the boss and the telecommuter, but for the rest of the staff.”

Because of her negative experience, Christine encourages workers to get everything in writing. “I was burned by my willingness to take my co-workers at their word, and I know a few other women who have similarly had their flex time taken back with no recourse.”

Flex Done Right

One company with a track record of excellence is Ernst & Young. They offer both formal and informal flexible work arrangements (FWAs) that are managed at the team level and supported by building trust, communicating frequently, providing the right technology and adjusting plans as needed.

“Flexibility is embedded in our culture at EY and is available to everyone, regardless of gender or level,” says Maryella Gockel, Americas flexibility strategy leader for Ernst & Young. “While several thousand of our people in the Americas are on a formal FWA, we find that most people are interested in day-to-day flexibility—especially since we have very global and mobile teams. We need both formal and informal flexibility options to succeed, because we respect that people have different needs and preferences—and that those may change over time based on their age and stage of life."

The bottom line, according to Gockel, is that flexibility in most environments today isn’t about working less—it’s about everyone having the ability to work differently. “We have to value prioritization, time management and results over face time and long hours for flexibility to work well.”

Gockel says that when you make flexibility for everyone, there is no hierarchy of needs that determines whose needs are more important. “I’m sure that we have people who think that others have more flex than they have, but it gets mitigated by the fact that everyone gets it, regardless.”

Amy Brachio, advisory services partner at Ernst & Young LLP, has found that flex time has been critical to her ability to meet her personal and professional goals over her nearly 17 years with the company. “In our line of work, we need our professionals to be flexible with their time to meet our client needs and, in return, the firm does a great job of encouraging everyone to collaborate with their teams to determine how flexibility can also work for them,” she says.

“Personally, the firm's dedication to flexibility has allowed me to modify my schedule to fit my needs at different points in my life—from having children to caring for ailing parents. This flexibility has allowed me to be the mom, daughter, wife and community member that I have wanted to be, while also pursuing an exciting and fulfilling career.”

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