Monday, March 15, 2010
For years, Katie Sleep's life was dominated by a grueling commute. She remembers never eating dinner before dark, never getting to watch her kids play in the yard. When she lived in San Francisco, she would drop her kids off at day care at 6:00 a.m. in order to get to the office on time. When Sleep launched her own software development company, she felt passionately that her employees should not suffer as she had.
"Work cannot be everything," Sleep says. "People who have their lives are far better workers."
In a large majority of families with children, both parents work, and women now hold half of all jobs. Sleep's company, List Innovative Solutions, is among a growing number of American firms adapting to the needs and wants of a changing workforce.
The company is located amid a tangle of highways in Northern Virginia — a real commuter nightmare. So Sleep lets employees largely set their own hours and telecommute at will. And it's not just mothers but also fathers who take advantage of these flexible work options.
'People End Up Getting Their Job Done'
"They want the ability to go to their children's play, which is usually at 3; it's never at 5 or 6," Sleep says. "And what you find out is, people end up getting their job done."
Sleep has nearly 100 employees, but on a recent early afternoon visit, many offices are empty. Human Resources Director Kristy Stumpf prepares to head out in time to beat rush hour traffic and to meet her children's school bus.
"When I'm in the office, that's my face time," Stumpf says. "Today were my meetings, filing, that kind of stuff." At home, she works on self-guided projects.
Stumpf's dad was a long-suffering commuter, and she used to think that's just the way life was.
"Now that I've worked here, I realize I would never in a million years be able to be in an office 40, 50 hours a week and commute forever. It just wouldn't work." Stumpf starts to laugh, then seems to catch herself, almost as if she feels guilty about her own good luck.
Work Time Revolution
U.S. labor laws are perfectly suited to 1960, says University of Minnesota sociologist Phyllis Moen. The 40-hour workweek and 9-to-5 workday were all codified in an era when men went off to an assembly line and women stayed home.
"We're really in the middle of something like an industrial revolution," Moen says. "But it's a work time revolution."
First, more and more employers are discovering that loosening the traditionally rigid work schedule pays off. Sleep says her retention rate over 16 years is an astonishing 95 percent. And study after study shows productivity also shoots up. More than half of companies now say they offer flextime, and one-third allow telecommuting at least part-time.
On the other hand, research also shows that employees don't find their workplaces nearly as flexible as managers report. Work-family experts say arrangements often appear more generous on paper than in practice and can be highly dependent on the generosity of immediate supervisors.
So, what about that revolution? Well, work-life experts say another force is building: working parents are no longer the only ones who want flexible hours.
Millennials Want Balance
"When you talk about Gen-X or Gen-Y or the millennials, they've taught us that we can't necessarily say work-family balance," says Lisa Horn of the Society for Human Resource Management. The preferred term now is work-life, because young workers apparently value their flexibility just as much as a working mom.
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You may have heard that millennials in the workplace are lazy and "entitled," but sociologist Moen says that's a bad rap. She says young workers simply don't want to wait decades until retirement for their quality of life — an attitude that has been reinforced by the recession, as they've seen parents and boomer relatives lose their jobs.
"They no longer believe in the myth that working in rigid ways for long hours necessarily pays off," Moen says. "That's a real change."
Another change is the degree of mobile technology young workers have grown up with.
"This generation is completely untethered. They have laptops in grade school," says Jody Thompson, a co-founder of Culture Rx, a consulting firm that promotes a completely flexible work style. Thompson says young people today are used to getting stuff done — on their laptops, cell phones, iPods — wherever they are, whenever they want.
"Then we bring them into the work environment and we say, 'Here's this 6x6 square you're going to work in, with a desktop computer,' which to them, by the way, is a gaming computer," Thompson says. "'And here's your phone with your cord. You come in at 8 and you leave at 5, and between 10 and noon, that's when we're creative.'"
Thompson says young workers simply can't relate to such a system.
Signs Point To Flexibility
If moms and millennials united aren't enough to loosen rigid work rules, experts say yet another push for flexibility will come from an unlikely source: the very baby boomers who defined 9-to-5 culture in their prime. Sociologist Moen says as they grow older, many will want or need to keep working well past traditional retirement age.
"And older workers who you may want to keep on because of their skills or contacts will want to work differently— more flexibly and less," Moen says.
It's hard to find the case against flexible work these days. Even the staunchly pro-business Chamber of Commerce promotes it, though Marc Freedman, the chamber's director of labor law policy, says it only works for some employees and jobs.
"You can imagine certain jobs where you have to be at the workplace," he says. "And if you're not there, somebody else is going to have to pick up the load, and that won't be fair to them."
In fact, researchers are looking into ways to bring more flexibility to the hardest case low-wage and hourly jobs.
But even at her software development company, Sleep agrees, all flex arrangements are not for everyone. In fact, she says she could never work at home.
"It's not good for me. I like being around the people!" she says.
Sleep has also had to fire employees who took advantage of the flexibility she offers. But she says it's worth finding those who can handle the freedom, even if it makes her job more difficult.
"There's not a day that I don't kind of panic when I know that my workforce is all working from home," she says. "So it's not like you've got it all wrapped up and the answers are simple. It's whether or not you can let loose of that anxiety and really trust in people."