Finding balance: The benefits of flexible work programs

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

Emma Gilchrist sits with daughters Jessica, 9, and Isabel 4. "I'm a mom, and it is very important for me to spend time with my children," Gilchrist says.

Joey Ferguson, Deseret News

The 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work life may not be for everyone, and many employers are agreeing.

Emma Gilchrist, a director at accounting firm Deloitte LLP, eats breakfast with her husband and two daughters at her home in South Jordan before school and her 7:30 a.m. video conference with clients in the U.K. By 3:30 p.m. she's off again to see her daughter's swim meet.

Gilchrist can juggle her home life and professional duties because of Deloitte's policies on work schedules. The flexibility, or flextime, allows employees to spend time with families and relieve stress while still feeling as part of a team. A Society of Human Resource Management survey reported that 53 percent of companies offer flextime benefits, with another 2 percent offering it in the coming year.

"I'm a mom, and it is very important for me to spend time with my children," Gilchrist said over her daughter, who was loudly practicing her numbers. "It allows me to have the career I want to have and the family I want to have."

Flexible work programs are allowing some people to keep working without sacrificing time at home. Deloitte, which has about 120 employees in Salt Lake City, has managed to keep its turnover rate to the "mid- to lower teens" compared to the industry's 20 percent average, said Mark Stevens, an audit director at Deloitte. Lowering turnover by 1 percentage point can save a company millions of dollars, he said.

"When employees have flexibility in when and where they work, they're more motivated, more likely to stay with the organization and more likely to deliver better results," said Jeff Hill, a professor at Brigham Young University's School of Family Life. "When you create an environment where an employee can choose when and where they work, they can really optimize the mix of their time."

The accounting firm has saved $45 million by reducing retention costs.

"We're hiring people for long-term careers. All of us have commitments to our families and things that are important to us outside of work, and we'll work together to figure out a way to make things happen as they come up," Deloitte's Stevens said.

In the U.S., 53.2 percent of married couples have both spouses in the work force compared with 22 percent where just the husband works and 7.4 percent where only the wife works, according to U.S. Census data.

"Companies that address flexible work schedules really understand the varying situations that their employees are in," said Lynette Rasmussen, director of the Utah Office of Work & Family Life. "If you're so rigid that you can't adapt to the fluctuating situations that are happening in your employees lives, then I think you're being pretty shortsighted."

For some hesitant companies, it's an issue of trust when employees and managers lack face time.

The solution is a shift from a "face-time" oriented workplace to one that is "results-based," said BYU's Hill, who worked at IBM for 25 years and helped develop a flexible work environment. Hill said some companies resist flexible work environments because managers are concerned that they can't measure productivity unless they can see their employees.

"If you have a distrustful organization, the assumption by management is that the employees are going to get away with as little work as possible," Hill said. "The research I have done shows that people do their job better when their manager isn't observing them do it. In companies that I've worked with, there is resistance until they have experience with (flextime)."

Trust isn't an issue in flexibility if you hire people who are competitive and "want to win," Jill Layfield, CEO of Backcountry.com, said in an interview at the company's Park City headquarters.

"If you hire the right people, they will get the job done," Layfield said. "It's our job to hire the right people, not tell them to be here from nine to five."

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