Embracing Flex Time Takes Work, Firms Find

Balancing work and home-life is tough, making "flex time" a front-burner issue for many professionals. But companies are finding that changing corporate culture to offer more flexible schedules can be a complicated task.

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Now that most companies in America allow at least some employees to work a flexible schedule - they might work at home, or their hours might vary or just work a couple of days a week - both companies and their employees are fine-tuning the effort.

As Judy Martin reports, even companies with flex schedules are finding that nowadays, it's more important than ever.

JUDY MARTIN: It's Wednesday. Three-year-old triplets are waving their mom off to work in the foyer of their family's Victorian home in Westchester, New York.

Ms. MOORE: Say goodbye to momma for real now.

Unidentified child #1: Bye, momma.

Ms. Moore: Bye. Give me a kiss.

(Soundbite of kiss)

Ms. Moore: I love you.

MARTIN: Tim Moore, daddy, is parked on a big wooden chair. On his lap: Lewis, Riley and Regan. They move off to the kitchen for breakfast.

Unidentified Child #2: Pancakes.

Mr. TIM MOORE (Investigator, BDO Seidman): Pancakes.

MARTIN: Tim Moore is an investigator for BDO Seidman, an accounting and consulting firm in New York City. He works from home one day a week. When the babysitter arrives, he heads to his home office.

Mr. MOORE: So the morning is (unintelligible) time. Spending more than one day at home, it wouldn't be feasible.

MARTIN: The Moore's engineered their own work life flexibility. Tim Moore has clients in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, so it's challenging.

The 24/7 high-tech business machine doesn't stop for naps, and corporate America is adjusting. In a recent survey, the Alliance for Work Life Progress found that a large majority - 84 percent of companies - offered some form of work life flex. But it's not one size fits all.

Ms. DONNA DOLAN (Communication Workers of America): Obviously, there are only certain job titles that lend themselves for folks being able to work from home.

MARTIN: That's Donna Dolan. She's the Northeast point person on work and family policy for the Communication Workers of America. In the collective bargaining process, she says, work life flex takes a backseat to wages and healthcare. To commit to a flexible working culture, a company must spend money and time. Dolan says they have to assess policies, create flexible positions, implement new scheduling programs and allow employees to voice their needs.

Ms. DOLAN: They're going to find that they are going to have to bend where they've never bended before in getting managers this training.

MARTIN: But Barbara Taylor, chief counsel for BDO Seidman, says the consequences far outweigh the upfront costs. For example, to replace a mid-level manager like Tim Moore, it could cost well over 150 percent of his annual salary.

Ms. BARBARA TAYLOR (Chief counsel, BDO Seidman): There's an extreme business imperative that underlies the flexibility initiative in particular. And so anything that we can do to hold onto a talented person contributes to our bottom line.

MARTIN: Taylor speaks from first-hand experience.

Ms. TAYLOR: Hi, sweetie. How was school?

LUKE: Good.

MARTIN: That's Taylor, greeting her five-year-old son Luke home from school. She knows a lot about work life flex. She's been working from home two days a week for a decade, and says flex arrangements work best when championed by the company and the employee equally.

Ms. TAYLOR: It needs to be approved. It needs to make sense. You need to be working with a good, self-starting, trustworthy employee, and then also to have the ability to re-evaluate the situation down the road if it isn't meeting the needs of the business.

MARTIN: Or the employees, says work life strategist Cali Yost. She's the author of "Work + Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You." She says when companies view work life flex as a strategy, instead of a perk, everyone benefits.

Ms. CALI YOST (Author, "Work + Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You"): Improved client engagement, improved communication and people are more productive and more engaged. So you begin to see the other benefits besides just that hard quantifiable return on investment. And that's harder for companies, but the smart ones are going to see that the horses have already left the barn.

MARTIN: As for Tim Moore, there is no turning back. He juggles, but always says good morning and good night to the triplets, whether upstairs in his office or on a brief 2:00 a.m. phone call the Middle East.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Martin in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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