How to Make Flextime Policies Work

Flex

In today’s fast-paced, Blackberry-addicted, iPad-dependent work world, the term “9 to 5” might conjure up images of the classic Dolly Parton tune rather than time spent in the office. Indeed, the rise of flextime policies at companies across the country has all but rendered the term obsolete.

The way Bridget Lipezker, a 15-year veteran of Deloitte, sees it, while you may not be punching the 9-to-5 clock, make no mistake, the job is still getting done.

“We’re working around the clock so that it meets the needs of the clients,” she says. “It isn’t about working more hours, it’s working in a smarter way.”

“Flextime,” or a variable work schedule, has become part of our cultural lexicon over the past few years, as more companies have begun to offer employees the option to reduce their physical time in the office. Forrester Research estimates a whopping 34 million people worked from home in 2011 on a regular basis; it expects the telecommuting population to nearly double by 2016. Technological advances such as iPhones and Blackberry’s have made it possible for employees to set up their offices from almost anywhere.

Among the factors driving the trend at many Chicago-area companies are recruitment and retention, increased productivity and loyalty, and a decrease in absenteeism and turnover.

Of course, you can’t forget the bottom line. Jennifer Kenedy, managing partner of the Chicago office for Locke Lord, LLP, says offering the attorneys at her firm flextime makes dollars and sense.

“If you’re in an industry that cares about retaining top talent and not losing the large financial investment…it just makes sense,” says Ms. Kenedy, who chairs Locke Lord’s Flexible Work Arrangement Committee, which steers the flextime application process at the firm. “Let’s face it, when we hire people in any industry, we’re investing a significant amount of money and time into training those individuals. If they decide they have to leave because their family life is making demands on them, you’re not only losing a valued employee, you’re also losing a big investment.”

Theresa Duckett and Katherine Harris are two Locke Lord associates who have taken advantage of the firm’s flextime policy out of a desire to stay home with their young children. Ms. Harris is in the office Monday-Thursday, while Ms. Duckett is in three days a week. Both say the key to flextime is flexibility.

“We’re still attorneys,” Ms. Harris says. “You still need to be available. If the client needs something on Saturday, I get back to the client on Saturday.”

“It took five years getting work done at 11 o’clock at night,” Ms. Duckett agrees. “Sometimes that’s just as efficient as being in the office.”

Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer at NiSource, says that while her company doesn’t have a formal policy in place to grant employees flextime, it does empower management to tailor each situation to the individual.

“We decided to have the most inclusive approach possible, because standard policies oftentimes are less flexible,” Ms. Hightman explains. “We want managers to be equipped with concepts and ideas so that when their employee comes to them with a need [for flexibility], they can say, ‘Here are some ideas.’”

Beyond Parenting

While many may think of childcare as the primary reason to take advantage of flextime, Ms. Hightman notes that there are myriad reasons why an employee might adjust their time in the office. These may include caring for aging parents, ongoing individual health issues or coaching Little League. In fact, one NiSource employee found himself needing to take extended time off on two separate occasions: once to care for his mother during a long-term hospital stay and the other when his wife fell and broke one leg and one ankle. Another NiSource employee considered it “the best Christmas gift ever” when her flextime request was granted after the birth of her son in November.

“What we’ve learned is there are lots of very unique and interesting situations that arise that require employees to seek flextime arrangements, and you can’t always anticipate what those situations will be,” Ms. Hightman says. “At the same time, we want to make sure we can meet our obligations of providing safe and reliable energy services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Deloitte, considered a pioneer in the concept of flextime (stretching back to the early ‘90s) offers a variety of formal opportunities through its Mass Career Customization program as well as informal situations, such as job sharing and sabbaticals. In fact, the firm has found that flextime programs have played a big part in eliminating the turnover gap. Much like NiSource and Locke Lord, Deloitte doesn’t subscribe to the theory that one size fits all.

“Twenty years ago, when a lot of these flexible work arrangements were first out there, I think there was much more of an approach to make it cookie-cutter, because managers didn’t know how to manage a different model,” Stacy Janiak, managing partner for Deloitte’s Chicago office, believes. “It has evolved and will continue to evolve as the impact on what it means to be a productive employee continues to evolve.”

Ms. Lipezker, who currently works full time and has worked flextime at different points in her career with the firm due to the birth of her children, credits flextime for helping her to achieve professional goals.

“I’ve kept moving up in my career because I was able to create a sense of balance,” she says. “I’m able to have a meaningful career and continue growing as a professional while having a very involved family life.”

Ms. Harris, who’s on the partnership track at Locke Lord, echoes that sentiment – with a caveat.

“You get delayed a little bit,” she confesses. “We’re getting less experience because we aren’t working 100 percent of the time, so partnership gets slowed down a little bit. Still, for me, it’s allowed me to be a better mom and a better lawyer.”

While the benefits of flextime are hard to dispute – ranging from a powerful recruitment and retention tool to being a key driver in employee engagement – there are challenges associated. Transparency with clients and co-workers, meeting deadlines and being reliable and available were all cited as major factors employees must be mindful of when entering into a flextime arrangement. For the foreseeable future, the trend toward virtual work environments will likely continue, with even greater ubiquity and enthusiasm.

“The possibilities are endless, depending on where technology goes and how much more connected and accessible we all are,” Ms. Janiak says. “It’s only going to increase…the ability to do your job anywhere, anytime.”

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About Pat Pulido Sanchez

Pat Pulido Sanchez is president and CEO of Pulido Sanchez Communications, LLC, a Chicago-based strategic communications firm that specializes in helping companies increase their market share and raise their profile among their target audiences.