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Flexible Work Arrangements

Unconventional work schedules help companies motivate employees even in turbulent times

by Susan J. Ainsworth
June 29, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 26

Credit: Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co.
Employees at Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co. leave a meeting to enjoy personal time afforded by their flexible schedules.
Credit: Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co.
Employees at Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co. leave a meeting to enjoy personal time afforded by their flexible schedules.

Over the past six months, Carol Sladek has sensed a change in the atmosphere within many of her clients’ facilities. The tension is palpable. “In the midst of this economic downturn, I have never seen so many employees who are so downtrodden,” says Sladek, a principal in the work-life practice at Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm. “They are working so hard, and they are scared to death that they are going to lose their jobs. They are dealing with a tremendous amount of stress.”

Employers want to alleviate that stress but don’t have the money to hire more employees or give raises. There is one stress reliever, however, that remains within many companies’ means: Firms can offer flexible work arrangements so that employees can be more relaxed about how and where they get their work done, Sladek says.

Flexible work arrangements—which can include part-time work, compressed workweeks, flex-time, telecommuting, and job sharing—empower workers to do their work in a way that makes sense for them, Sladek says. “The traditional work model—working 9 to 5—is outdated,” she adds. “With the advent of so many new technologies, our lives are so different now than they were 40 or 50 years ago, and that has to carry over to our work. For example, you couldn’t imagine Ward Cleaver carrying a BlackBerry. It doesn’t really fit.”

Today, there is “a 24-hour connectivity that didn’t exist in the past. At any time of day or night, we are checking e-mail on our iPhones,” says Sladek, who is a telecommuter. “I may still work 14 hours on a given day, but because I am able to take a walk or take a break to get something else done, my working hours are much more relaxed.”

According to a 2008 survey of 90 U.S. employers that Hewitt staff conducted, 66% of companies said that flexible work programs increased employee engagement, 64% said they improved employee retention, and 49% linked them to enhanced recruitment results.

Credit: Courtesy of Angie Hunter
AstraZeneca chemist Hunter works part-time so that she can spend more time with her two-year-old daughter.
Credit: Courtesy of Angie Hunter
AstraZeneca chemist Hunter works part-time so that she can spend more time with her two-year-old daughter.

A spring 2008 Merck & Co. survey produced similar results, spurring the company to expand its flexible work policies outside the U.S. to employees worldwide late last year. Almost 50% of those surveyed indicated flexibility was an important part of their desire to stay at Merck, says Cindy Martinangelo, director of the company’s Global Work Environment. “We also learned that employee engagement is 29% higher when Merck employees have the flexible work arrangements that they need.” Martinangelo believes effective use of flexibility helps Merck attract job candidates and enhances employee satisfaction, productivity, and innovation.

Jerri Lenges, a Ph.D. chemist who is a senior technical specialist in DuPont’s Packaging & Industrial Polymers group, says she feels fortunate to be able to work for a company that allows her to work part-time and enjoy more flexibility for her family. “As a result, I am willing to do more for the company,” she says. Lenges, a 12-year DuPont veteran, has been working part-time since her second child was born seven years ago.

“When I am at work, I am really focused on my job,” Lenges says. “I don’t have to think about taking days out of my normal work schedule to care for my kids when they are sick or to take them for checkups.” Instead, Lenges uses time off, which can be rolled over from week to week, to take care of those needs. “I’ve always tried to work hard and not be constrained by my 80% schedule so that I perform to whatever level is required of the job,” she says.

Likewise, Angie Hunter, a bench chemist in AstraZeneca’s central-nervous-system chemistry group, admits to feeling “self-imposed pressure to do as much as a full-time employee,” even though she only works four days per week. To maximize her productivity, she says, she often cuts personal conversations short or skips lunches with coworkers. Even so, she says she is happy to put forth the extra effort in exchange for having every Friday off to take her two-year-old daughter to the zoo or have more time for household chores.

Flexible work arrangements may also ease the pressures of communicating with international colleagues and customers. Taking a conference call with someone in China at 9 PM at home “becomes less frustrating when you can leave work early or arrive later the next day,” says Ed Colbert, director of talent management at Dow Corning, where 35 to 40% of the company’s workers enjoy flexible hours or a compressed workweek.

Companies Provide Tools To Help Employees Alleviate Stress

“In these troubled times, employers are recognizing that their employees are so worried about meeting their next mortgage payments, handling their finances, or keeping their jobs that they are less able to focus on their work,” says Kathleen Mahieu, a senior consultant in Hew­itt Associates’ Health & Productivity Solutions group, which focuses on human resource issues.

“This is causing a lot of concerns about productivity and workplace accidents or errors,” she says. In addition, companies know that these stressors can cause myriad health problems, which increase absenteeism and the use of health care services, thereby driving costs up, she adds. In response, companies are trying to help employees manage stress and remain on track.

Last year, AstraZeneca teamed up with Resilience Alliance, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, to develop a training course and a series of webinars to help people become more resilient “so that when disruptive change happens, they will have new resources to rely on,” says Joe Fletcher, one of the leaders of AstraZeneca’s program. Demand for the program within various parts of AstraZeneca’s business has been running “extremely high,” he says. The company already has presented the program to more than 1,200 employees.

Many companies have begun to promote use of benefits such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), Maheiu says. EAPs offer a resource and referral service for employees and family members, including short-term counseling for personal or financial matters that might not be covered by medical insurance.

Dow Corning has built on-site fitness centers to help employees work off stress, says Ed Colbert, the company’s director of talent management. It has also sponsored health forums to allow employees to assess their own stress levels and determine whether they can manage these with relaxation techniques or if they have more serious stress-related conditions that require medical assistance.

Achieving a balance between work and personal time is appealing to just about everybody, including midlife employees who are caring for elderly parents, older workers who want to ease into retirement, 20-something Generation Y workers who put a premium on their free time, and parents with young children.

That’s why flexible work programs can be powerful recruitment tools for companies that want to attract the best talent while also building diversity into their populations. “If you no longer have a ‘cookie cutter’ workforce—meaning you have differences in age and gender and race and background and stage of life—then flexible work arrangements give you a lot of room for accommodating people,” says Andrea Moselle, a senior manager in the diversity and work-life team at AstraZeneca. “Flexible work programs play a role in attracting and retaining everybody, but it is a particularly important driver for women,” she says.

Flexible programs have made it attractive for Laura Kilbride, a chemical engineer, to remain with Dow Corning for the past 14 years. While serving as a quality engineer when her first child was born in 1997, she approached her manager about finding a position that could be done part-time. With his support, she moved into a position in manufacturing support.

Then, in 2003, when Kilbride decided to take a full-time job as a manufacturing team leader at the company’s joint venture, Hemlock Semiconductor, her husband, who also works for Dow Corning, successfully proposed a reduced work schedule for himself so that he could care for their three young children. In the absence of these flexible work options, Kilbride thinks she would have probably tried to find work at another company.

Back in 1997, however, there were not many chemical engineers working part-time at Dow Corning or elsewhere, Kilbride recalls. As a result, she and her managers had to learn on the fly how much she could realistically complete on a three-day schedule and what kinds of jobs she could take on as a part-time employee. “I think management was watching to see how I would do and whether I was just going to quit,” she recalls. “Although there was hesitation at first,” her managers let her “keep growing,” she says.

At Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co., management “is committed to ensuring that employees who choose a flexible work arrangement will continue to have opportunities for meaningful work assignments and career development,” says Tracy Simpson, the company’s director of benefits. She concedes, however, that “a career-advancing job opportunity may arise that is not compatible with a flexible work arrangement.”

In those instances, some are happy to trade career advancement for flexibility. “I know that I would have to work full-time to assume more senior positions or work as a manager, but I made the choice years ago to give more focus to my family,” says Marianne Langston, a Ph.D. chemist working part-time in process chemistry R&D at Millennium. She reports no regrets: “I love my job and the opportunity that Millennium affords me to combine my career and family needs.”

DuPont’s Lenges says her part-time status hasn’t had any impact on her career progression or opportunities. She has just accepted an application development position in the company’s Applied BioSciences group. At DuPont, she says, “promotions are based on productivity and the value that the employee is delivering on the job whether that job is an 80% job, a 50% job, or a 100% job.”

Not all companies—even those with flexible work programs—are open to that way of thinking, Sladek says. Many companies believe that those working in nontraditional arrangements are “less devoted to the company, less loyal, not willing to work hard, and inclined to work on a slower track,” she adds. These beliefs can be the biggest stumbling blocks for employers attempting to implement these programs. As a result, many employees shy away from flexible work arrangements for fear of being marginalized or targeted for cutbacks, Sladek says. Kilbride, for example, admits she felt vulnerable in a part-time position back in the 1990s, when Dow Corning was cutting its workforce.

Whether an employee feels safe depends on the degree to which their employer truly embraces flexibility, Sladek says. Dow Corning, for example, endorses its program from the top down. Just after it rolled out its flexible work policies in 2002, some of the company’s top executives began participating in the compressed workweek program, Colbert says. “Although they initially did it to set an example for the employees, they now seem to truly enjoy having some Friday afternoons off,” he says.

For a flexible arrangement to work, managers must also buy in. In addition, they have to establish clear goals and expectations for the employee up front, AstraZeneca’s Moselle says. That means spelling out “what they expect you to deliver, how you are going to work out communications, and when they expect you to be in the office for a meeting and when you can just call in,” she says.

After having researched company policies, AstraZeneca’s Hunter says she worked closely with her manager to explore part-time work options before the birth of her daughter. Strong lines of communication continue to be important to the success of her arrangement, she says. She meets with her manager to discuss her weekly goals, which involve making chemical intermediates for her work group or investigating drug targets for possible biological evaluation. As a result, Hunter believes she has the best of both worlds. “I get a job that I really love, and I get to spend more time with my daughter,” she says. “I have a good sense of balance in my life.”

Flexible work programs are also good for employers’ bottom lines, Sladek says. By shifting at least some of their employees to virtual and telecommuting arrangements, companies can reduce office space and real-estate costs.

DuPont has equipped about 9,000 of its employees with laptops and equipment necessary to work from home, but only a small percentage of workers do so on a regular basis, says Rich Vintigni, a diversity and work-life consultant at the company. “As the technology continues to improve,” he says, “we are looking at utilizing telecommuting more to cut down on traffic and the number of buildings we operate in.”

But until now, cost savings have not been the driver of work-life initiatives at many chemical and drug companies. “It’s been more about supporting our employees,” Dow Corning’s Colbert says. “Given all the bad things that are going on within our economy right now, I think anything we can do to motivate our employees, and maybe take some of the undue stress off of them, is the least we can do as a company.”


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