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A smart management strategy in troubled times

May 20, 2009 11:42 IST

Rita has never felt so stressed. When her husband Joe, a five-year veteran of a West Coast telecommunications firm, was "let go" last December, his severance package provided a three-month cushion. But by early April household bills were beginning to pile up.

"I'm working as hard as I know how, taking on extra assignments, putting in 12-hour-days--making sure my job as senior manager at a financial services firm isn't at risk," she said in a recent interview.

At the same time, family pressures are also ramping up. As Rita tells it, "Joe is consumed by his job search and unavailable to either me or the kids. Quite honestly I feel more like a single mom than when Joe had a job and spent the day at his office."

Rita is not alone. Eighty per cent of the 5.1 million people who have lost their jobs in this recession are men. Many working wives and mothers are now the sole breadwinner. Since women shoulder a disproportionate load of family responsibility and earn 20 per cent less than men, this adds up to a great deal of pressure.

"A little flexibility would be a godsend right now," Rita sighs. "The ability to come home and have dinner with the kids before putting in a late night would make all the difference."

Unfortunately, precisely when the need for flexible work arrangements is going through the roof, it's becoming harder and harder to take it. According to a recent survey from the Center for Work Life-Policy, face time obligations more than doubled between June 2008 and December 2008, from 22 per cent to 55 per cent. Professionals worried about their job security don't feel comfortable asking for a staggered workday or a telecommuting arrangement. Instead, they're chaining themselves to their desks to prove they're indispensable.

A few organisations are bucking the trend, with some local governments leading the way. Two years ago, the city of Houston, Texas, promoted flextime as a way to ease its notoriously congested commuter ways. The "Flex in the City" program was so successful--slashing workers' stress, boosting their performance and saving money--that Houston is reaffirming its commitment with another two-week trial this May.

Across the Atlantic, Gordon Brown's Labour government is putting more teeth into the "Right to Request" flexibility legislation, which empowers parents of children up to age six to ask for flexible scheduling, and ensures that employers consider these requests.

Launched in 2003 as a brainchild of Secretary of Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt, this program has been a runaway success, with almost a quarter of all eligible employees--some 14 million men and women--asking to work flexibly. The vast majority of requests are being accepted. In April 2007, the law was extended to 2.65 million workers who care for adult relatives, and just last month was further expanded to include 4.5 million employees with responsibility for children up to age 16.

Some leading-edge companies are also newly committing to flex as a smart strategy in tough times. In a difficult economy, flexible work arrangements are a triple win, allowing organisations to cut payroll costs without large-scale staff reductions, boost employee morale and retain top talent so the firm can quickly gear up for new business when the economy turns around.

In January 2009, accounting giant KPMG unveiled its new Flexible Futures program for its 11,000 UK-based employees. The options include: A four-day workweek and a 20 per cent reduction in base pay; a four- to 12-week sabbatical with a 30 per cent reduction in base pay; a combination of the two options, or sticking with the status quo.

Positioned as a way for the firm to "come together" in tough times, Flexible Futures is already seen as a winner. "We were trying to deal with reality but also give employees some control over their own destiny," says Rachel Campbell, head of people for KPMG Europe and the architect of Flexible Futures.

To date, 85 per cent of KPMG's U.K.-based employees have signed up. The most popular choice is option No. 3, which features both a shorter workweek and a sabbatical--which gives some sense of how time-starved professionals are these days. According to Campbell, "given this choice structure, the company is looking at an immediate savings opportunity of 15 per cent of payroll costs."

In a similar vein, Citigroup is lifting up flexible work with Citi Work Strategies. The program has two elements: Flexible Work Strategies encourages job sharing, flexible start and end times, and compressed work weeks. As of February 2009 it's complemented by Citi's Alternative Workplace Strategies, a push to provide a greener workplace through office-sharing and remote work. Citi hopes these programs will reduce the company's need for office space by 15 per cent over the next several years. The benefits to employees: incalculable.

Formalising flextime has one other unsung but important consequence: It takes the stigma out of asking for time off. Knowing that there's some give in the workplace--and not all take--does powerful things for women's earning power and career advancement prospects. That may be the biggest benefit of all.


Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank, where she leads the "Hidden Brain Drain " Task Force. She is the author of nine nonfiction books--including Off-Ramps and On-Ramps and Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down (forthcoming).

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Forbes
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