Younger moms are stating their needs More firms are flexible on shifts; both see benefits

MILWAUKEE -- Half an hour in the middle of the afternoon is the golden window for Denise Merkel.

In that half-hour, she hands off the remaining duties of the day to the staff she supervises as an assistant vice president for data and financial services at the Greenfield, Wis., PyraMax Bank and drives nine minutes home, from a world of parking lots and signs to green grass and pines.

There, she picks up where her husband, Todd, has left off with daughters Brianna, 5, and Isabella, 2. He's off to his shift as a diesel mechanic, and she can watch the girls play in their backyard.

PyraMax's family-friendly work practices have made it a magnet for young moms who negotiate flexible schedules right along with salaries and vacation time.

Baby boom moms largely worked out the details of flexible hours, telecommuting, and the like with their bosses one at a time, behind closed doors, for fear of setting an apple-cart-upsetting precedent.

Their daughters, now mothers of young children, put their expectations squarely on the table. Employers can respond with ``flexwork" options, or they can look for someone else.

A 2005 survey by staffing company Spherion found that a ``continued need for work-life balance" was one of three top retention factors. Only 32 percent of workers, it found, are satisfied with their ability to maintain balance between their personal and professional lives.

``For many young mothers, it just didn't work for them that their mothers went to work. I hear that all the time: `I'm not going to do that to my kids,' " says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection Inc., a publishing and consulting firm in Minnetonka, Minn.

Young moms say they've got flexible attitudes about flexibility: They'll make it work for their employers, if their employers will make it work for them.

In her 20 years in the workforce, Vicky Vogt has seen a 180-degree turn in how young moms are straightforward about presenting their expectations of flexibility in job interviews.

Vogt is vice president of employer-relations services for Pewaukee, Wis.-based MRA -- the Management Association Inc., an employer consortium that provides consulting services to members and that strives for a culture that accommodates working moms.

``I would say they're very upfront and, as they look for opportunities, they've made up their minds that they'll only leave their present positions or get back into the workforce if it meets their needs," she says. ``I don't think that attitude existed before."

MRA's research indicates about 25 percent of the workforce at its member companies use a compressed workweek, and fewer than 22 percent take advantage of flexible schedules. Half of MRA's own employees work some sort of alternative schedule, and of those working full time, about 30 percent use a flexible schedule.

Sarah Slaughter, 32, for years has been collecting intelligence about blending families and careers.

``I talk about this all the time with my friends from college and business school," says Slaughter, a 2005 graduate of the University of Chicago Business School who is an internal consultant with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Instead of being forced to accept or decline a job with non-negotiable hours and work culture, she says, ``for our generation, we hope that there's the opposite -- creative ways to make it work."

Each department at Northwestern Mutual offers a combination of work-life programs that meet its business demands, says Jean Towell, a company representative. Managers can decide if and how to use options such as job-sharing and compressed workweeks.

Before working at PyraMax, Merkel worked at a bank where, in 2001, she had eked out a little flexibility in her job as branch manager: She agreed to work a four-hour Saturday shift in return for a half-day in the middle of the week.

But at that bank, she says, flextime and other family-friendly practices were topics that employees knew were off-limits. The last straw was a reorganization that would shred the flexibility she did have.

Hearing through friends of the opening at PyraMax, Merkel applied.

``I was very upfront that I was a mom with a 10-month-old child and that I wanted to spend more time with her," she says.

Still, she was skeptical when her interviewer -- Monica Baker, senior vice president of marketing and human resources -- told her about the bank's flextime practice.

Baker says she realized 12 years ago, before she had her own children, that cultivating flexible work was a no-cost way to retain employees.

Employers that don't adapt their cultures to embrace the expectations of working moms ``don't know what they're missing -- a big swath of people who need flex," she says.