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Maggie Jackson | Balancing Acts

More employers embrace flexible scheduling

Lauren Krikorian completed her master's and worked full time thanks to her employer's flexibility. Lauren Krikorian completed her master's and worked full time thanks to her employer's flexibility. (Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maggie Jackson
May 18, 2008

Not long ago, Lauren Krikorian had a wish list. She wanted to get her master's degree in social work while keeping her job to avoid thousands of dollars in student loans.

Seems simple, but how could she fit in courses that met both night and day, internships, and her full-time position as a case manager for Old Colony Elderly Services, a Brockton nonprofit? Old Colony gave Krikorian the ultraflexible schedule she needed - for nearly three years.

Flexibility in the workplace isn't new. Telecommuting, working part time, job sharing, and even ducking out early on summer Fridays are becoming the norm, not the automatic career-stallers they once were. One sure sign: Nearly all of the 1,100 companies polled by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute for its 2008 report on employer benefits and practices offer at least one form of flexible work option. The firms were drawn from a random sample nationwide.

But now flexibility's reach is extending into new corners of the work world - from high-stress, low-budget nonprofits to call centers famed for their rigid work culture. More employees are getting more choices in how they work, a trend made clear by this year's winners of most prestigious awards in employer flexibility, the Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility: Employee choice in managing time - from daily scheduling to longer leaves - was offered by many of the 129 winners announced recently.

To win, an employer must rank in the top one-fifth of US employers on more than 34 measures of flexibility. Employees are also surveyed during the competition, held by the Families and Work Institute and the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation in 24 communities nationwide.

Old Colony garnered a Sloan Award in good part because it gives its staff of 100 scheduling flexibility. Almost since she joined the organization in 2005, Krikorian has been able to work her schedule around her classes and internships at Bridgewater State College. This past school year, she teleworked a bit and worked nearly 11-hour days on Wednesdays and Fridays so she could intern at a high school three days a week. Because she kept her job, she was able to graduate without any debt related to the degree.

"Old Colony said, 'We want to keep you: Let us know which hours you want to work,' " says Krikorian, who manages home-care assessments for the elderly. "When I started, I wasn't sure how I was going to balance things."

Such flexibility helps recruit and retain talent, says Timothy Valentine, Old Colony's assistant executive director. "We're a nonprofit social service agency, so you can imagine the salaries aren't skyrocketing," says Valentine. "The better situation we can offer, the better off we are to get the best people and keep them."

He's right - the business case for flexibility is sound. Employees who have a measure of flexibility at work have significantly greater job satisfaction, commitment to work, and engagement with a company, along with lower stress, according to research compiled by the nonprofit Corporate Voices for Working Families. Increasingly, executives are dropping their past reluctance to part with the 9 to 5, in-office model of work.

"We know from the research that if you have choice or autonomy and you have the support to make those choices and you're held accountable, those are the things that most affect how you feel about your employer, as well as your health and well-being," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

Call centers' infamous inflexibility long has inspired costly turnover, says Martin Hand, head of call center operations at Continental Airlines. "There's a logic behind it: I need 100 people on the phone at 8 o'clock," says Hand. But Continental's call center won a Sloan Award for offering a menu of flex options that have trimmed voluntary call center turnover to under 5 percent, compared with rates of up to 40 percent across the industry.

To boost morale, in 2006 the airline began allowing nearly one-third of its 3,500 US staff to work from home. As well, employees can trade shifts with one another, call in on short notice for days off that are repaid later, and earn "flex coupons" of as little as a quarter-hour off for good performance or attendance. Employees can use up to two 15-minute coupons a day, or 30 minutes of "grace time."

Suzanne Ramos, who works 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the airline's Salt Lake City call center, uses her flex coupons when she's running late to work. And she took a last-minute day off last month when her husband's flight home from Las Vegas was canceled so she could take her 8-year-old twins to school. "Just the flexibility of having that option is why I stay," says Ramos. "It makes it easier to come to work."

Retention, stress-busting, productivity - that's why the nonprofit Rhode Island Legal Services in Providence offers four weeks vacation for new employees, up to a year's unpaid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and a newly formalized comp time program for off-hours work. Such benefits help dial down the stress and turnover rife in the legal aid world.

"You don't want employees to work 10 or 12 hours a day, so they wind up sick or depressed, or don't take time to exercise or be with their families," says executive director Robert Barge, whose first action upon becoming head of the nonprofit in 1989 was abolishing the time sign-in sheet. Now, the average tenure for staff lawyers is eight to 10 years.

Is flexibility a part of the fabric of work life in America? Not yet. There are still many organizations where different ways of working are forbidden, or handed out sparingly, along with lower pay or fewer promotions. The Sloan Award pioneers, however, are shifting that mindset, one flex-option at a time.

Maggie Jackson, author of "What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age," can be reached at maggie.jackson@att.net.

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