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Juggling Act

Family-Friendly Schedules Sound Good, but in Practice . . .

Workplace: Employees worry that participation in such programs may hurt their chances for advancement or make co-workers resent them.

August 12, 1996|LISA TWARONITE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes Wendy Banks, a mother of two teenagers, daydreams of a simpler life in an era in which there seemed to be fewer choices and trade-offs for working parents.

"Sometimes I wish I was just a '50s housewife, just staying at home all day," she said. "But then I'd probably get bored with that in a minute."

Banks, an astrology writer who works at a publishing company, decided early in her career to have her professional life revolve around her family priorities. It hasn't always been easy.

But Banks, who works from home sometimes, has heard the whispers: "Some people just don't think I'm working if I'm at home."

Although more companies have embraced telecommuting, flexible schedules, job-sharing and compressed workweeks, workers who want to participate often face a host of concerns: Will the boss question their commitment? Will they be overlooked for promotions? Will co-workers resent them?

Most so-called family-friendly programs have not been in place long enough to measure the long-term effects on individuals' careers. But more workers are trying them as downsizing and aging have loosened the ties that bind them to their work.

Working at home part of the time hasn't cost Banks her employer's loyalty, she said. She takes pains to meet her deadlines and willingly rearranges her schedule to take on special projects.

"I work around my family all the time, and it's a tightrope walk, a juggling act," she said. "One of the trade-offs is that you get a lot of flexibility, but the downside is you get very stressed out."

Some working parents find it less stressful to actually reduce their working hours outright, even if that means putting up with a smaller paycheck. But although some families can afford a short-term reduction in income, the implications for future earning potential can be unsettling.

"People are often locked into long-term consumption contracts, like big houses and big cars. It's difficult to scale back," said Julie Hotchkiss, assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University. She has researched the effects of wage changes on two-income families since the early 1980s.

That so many individuals seem concerned about the trade-offs involved in planning professional lives around personal concerns "is not a surprise, given the empirical evidence," she said.

On the other hand, the potential rewards of successfully balancing work and family cannot be measured in monetary terms alone.

"I'm not the same person I was before I had my son," said Patricia Synn Cartwright, a lawyer who specializes in health and welfare matters at the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer Inc., a benefits consulting firm.

"I'm just about as happy as I've ever been in my life," she said. "The only thing I wish for is [to] turn into one of those people who only need two or three hours of sleep at night."

About 10% of the women with children at Mercer in Los Angeles have chosen to take a pay reduction in exchange for shorter working hours.

Cartwright chose to work shorter hours in a five-day week after son Robert was born a year ago. She tries to limit her hours in the office from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and considers herself fortunate that the nature of her job allowed her to "rejuggle things" to fit this schedule.

She know that others in her office lack the flexibility to choose such a path, and, therefore, "it's kind of a touchy subject," she said.

About a year ago, as more workers shifted to flexible schedules, Mercer conducted an internal survey of the firm's 43 offices and found evidence of resentment among some employees who believed work wasn't being shared evenly.

"Single people and younger people recruited right out of college feel like they're being discriminated against," said Jack Nelson, director of human resources at Mercer's Los Angeles office. "They feel like the attitude is, 'Oh, you don't have kids, so you can work longer hours and weekends.' "

Mercer is among the many companies reshaping their policies to offer employees more options, partly out of the awareness that doing so will help it keep valuable employees without alienating others.

"Some of our competitors who we recruit against offer different programs, and we've already lost some employees" to companies with more flexible policies in place, Nelson said.

Even so, not every job can be restructured to fit a more flexible schedule. Each case must be considered individually, experts say, and the final decision often rests with the boss.

For this reason, Nelson said, "there's a lot of uncertainty some people feel about asking," out of concern that they may be turned down and that their supervisor would then question their priorities.

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