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When time is money

Flexible schedules are a boon for workers and a saving for firms

Katerina Tzouganatos of Framingham, a Deloitte employee, scaled back her workweek from five days to four to allow more family time. Katerina Tzouganatos of Framingham, a Deloitte employee, scaled back her workweek from five days to four to allow more family time. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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It was the classic dilemma for a working mother: Katerina Tzouganatos wanted a lighter workload after she gave birth to her first child a year ago, but she didn’t want to derail her career in providing risk-advisory services to Deloitte LLP’s investment management clients.

Fortunately, the accounting and consulting firm was prepared to help. Using a system Deloitte calls its Mass Career Customization plan, which was fully implemented in the company’s US firms last year, Tzouganatos, 32, scaled back her workweek from five days to four, including one day a week working from home in Framingham. Combined with a reduced schedule of business trips, Tzouganatos was able to “dial down’’ her career to 80 percent, she said. When she’s ready to return full time, she’ll dial it back up.

The Deloitte system formalized the process for Tzouganatos, removing much of the worry that she might lose career momentum while she cared for her baby. “It really took away the anxiety and stress of ‘Will I be able to still focus on my career while being the type of mother that I want to be?’ ’’ she said.

Flexible work arrangements have been part of office culture for years, but companies such as Deloitte are increasingly seeing them as an affordable way to attract and hang on to valuable employees, both during the depths of a downturn and as jobs begin to open up. During the recession, more firms added, rather than cut back, flexible work options — allowing employees to perform duties from home, work weekends and evenings, or reduce their hours — according to a survey of 1,100 employers nationwide done by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group in New York.

Having people work fewer hours, and use fewer office resources, helped companies save money and cut down on layoffs, said institute president Ellen Galinsky: “They used flexibility as a way to manage the recession.’’

Some firms are even giving workers more wiggle room with hours in lieu of extra pay. “You see companies offering it as an additional perk because they might not be giving raises right now,’’ said Bill Driscoll, New England district president for staffing firm Robert Half International.

One company doing this is the Isosceles Group, an environmental and occupational health consulting firm in Boston. Instead of increasing salaries during the last two years, Isosceles brought on several part-time workers and allowed staffers to start working from home. That helped the business save about 30 percent of its overhead costs, said cofounder Rich DiNitto; one employee was even able to pick up extra work on the side after cutting out the hour-long commute each way.

“They get something more, and we don’t have to pay them any more money. Everybody’s happy,’’ DiNitto said.

Workers with above-average flexibility report higher levels of job loyalty, satisfaction, and mental health, according to a study of 4,600 employees conducted by Working Mother Research Institute, a division of Working Mother Media.

Creating a formal flexibility program was crucial at Deloitte, according to Molly Anderson, director of talent, who said that previously, those working reduced hours felt they were in a “career no-man’s land.’’

“The old industrial model said leave life at the door,’’ Anderson said. “Now it’s really about how do you integrate it.’’

Three-quarters of parents say they don’t have enough time for their children, up from 66 percent in the early 1990s, according to a study of more than 2,700 employees by the Families and Work Institute. And a vast majority of employees — 87 percent — say flexible schedules are key when looking for a new job.

Companies responding to the demand are letting more employees work on their own time, especially as technology offers an increasing ability to work anywhere, anytime. About 72 percent of employees reported having a moderate to high degree of workplace flexibility in 2008, up from 68 percent in 2002, according to the institute.

“Time has become the new currency,’’ Galinsky said.

In December, President Obama signed a law requiring federal agencies to create telecommuting policies for their employees, an acknowledgement of how widespread the practice of offering flexible work schedules has become.

“A lot of the work we’re doing now, if it’s not literally 24/7, it’s close to it,’’ said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

And with the demands of work so high, more companies are easing the boundaries of the traditional 9-to-5 workplace to inspire loyalty. “Smart employers have become passionate about flexible options when it comes to retaining their best employees,’’ said David DeLong, a specialist in changing-workforce issues who is based in Concord.

They’re also finding they get more out of their workers. When Avitage, a business-to-business marketing and communications company in Waltham, was between offices in the final six weeks of last year, its 15 staff members worked from home, and chief operating officer Zak Pines noticed an increase in productivity. “The culture of flexibility and empowerment and trust in employees leads to better morale, better performance, and makes the company more desirable,’’ Pines said.

Being able to adjust her schedule has made accountant Heather Shanahan a more dedicated employee. At her last job, when she needed a day off late in her pregnancy, “I got a lot of flak for it,’’ said Shanahan, 31.

Now, she says, she’s treated like a “grown-up’’ at the Wellesley office of Virilion, an interactive marketing agency, and she doesn’t mind putting in extra hours when necessary. Her boss, Amy Arthur, said it’s easy to offer flexibility when there’s mutual trust. “I know she’s not going to up and leave,’’ she said.

Shanahan was placed at Virilion by Mom Corps, a five-year-old staffing company that specializes in flexible schedules. Companies are reaching out to the firm because they realize they’re not tapping into a pool of educated, experienced women, and some men, who can’t find a job that lets them juggle their kids and their careers, said Boston franchise owner Nadia McKay. And these employees will bend over backward to please bosses who let them design their own schedules.

“They want to over-deliver to prove themselves to you, and they’re going to be more loyal because you’re allowing them to do it all,’’ McKay said.

In a poll conducted by media giant Thomson Reuters last summer, a quarter of its employees said the flexible work options were what they liked most about working there. Flexibility has helped save the company money, too. In 2005 Thomson Reuters, which has two offices in Boston, was able to consolidate its London offices from 18 to two, reducing real estate and energy costs, by encouraging employees to perform duties from home and work nontraditional hours.

At the Boston Consulting Group, the flexible work options go far beyond what hours — and where — people work. A few years ago Deborah Lovich was a high-flying partner at the management consulting firm, spending three or four days a week on the road, but she found she didn’t have enough time for her children.

So she decided to take on a less intense role, and a pay cut, to become an office administrator, which allows Lovich to be home at night to tuck in her 7-year-old twin boys and help her 14-year-old daughter study for a math test.

“This is a very chart-your-own-course kind of place,’’ said Lovich, 43, who plans to ramp back up to partner when her kids are older. “That’s why I’m still here.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.