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Inflexible Companies May Pay a Steep Price in Employees and Productivity

Work & Careers | Balancing Act

September 06, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

Flexibility in the workplace has been hailed lately as a relatively inexpensive way to help employees balance their lives and their livelihoods.

But withholding flexibility is more expensive than most employers realize, according to a series of studies by a human resources consulting firm that specializes in helping companies learn to bend.

Inflexibility increases turnover and reduces productivity in a group that companies can ill afford to lose: young, committed professionals with management experience, according to the research by Flexible Resources, which is based in Cos Cob, Conn., but has offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston.

A survey by Flexible Resources of more than 500 women seeking flexible work arrangements found that a whopping 64% of them had quit or were planning to quit their jobs because of a lack of flexibility. Even more startling was the fact that 59% of them never bothered to ask their employers for a flexible arrangement because they assumed they would be denied and would lose stature in the workplace.

What's more, younger women were more assertive in their hunt for flexibility than baby boomers. Candidates between the ages of 25 and 35 were more likely to have proposed a flexible work arrangement to their employers (72% compared with only 30% of respondents between the ages of 36 and 45) or to have left a job in search of flexibility (36% vs. 12%).

"We boomers were conditioned to believe that 'having it all' meant putting your family plans on hold while you single-mindedly pursued your career, and, as a result, these women are more reticent about asking for a part-time arrangement," said Laurie Young, co-founder of Flexible Resources.

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"But today, we see women in their 20s, recent MBA grads, who are telling us they will only work for companies who will allow them the flexibility they need to have a happy home life too," Young said. "These women seem more willing to accept that having it all isn't really attainable, and they are willing to bargain to get what's important."

Research into the payoff of nontraditional work assignments is proliferating as employers and consultants try to figure out if giving employees flexibility in their work schedules or sites is worth the perceived trouble.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 companies by consulting firm Hewitt Associates found that 69% of them are trying to give employees flexibility, up from 58% in a similar survey in 1992.

That's because more workers are pressuring their bosses for help in balancing work and home as traditional families in which only one parent works become more unusual. Such traditional households represent only 17% of working families, compared with about 63% in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Flexible Resources defines flexible work arrangements as anything other than the familiar 9-to-5. It could mean a full-time job with flexible hours, job sharing, permanent part-time work, telecommuting, a shortened workweek or contracting.

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Flexible Resources was founded 10 years ago by Young and her partner, Nadine Mockler, as part of their personal attempts to provide for their families while actually seeing them from time to time. Young and Mockler believe that theirs is the only consulting firm to focus strictly on flexible work arrangements, both consulting with employers and providing a pool of employees who are interested in flexible set-ups.

Flexible Resources surveyed candidates who approached the company for help in finding flexible work. The average respondent was 39 and had personal income of $64,000 and household income of $105,000. Slightly more than half had completed graduate level courses and eight in 10 had management experience.

The women surveyed by Flexible Resources said they were seeking flexible jobs for better work and family balance (71%), for a better quality of life (66%) and because of responsibilities to children (54%) and household (26%).

The 59% who did not bother to ask for flexibility, even though they wanted it badly enough to quit, most frequently did not ask because their company had a policy against it (24%) or they were afraid they would not appear to be serious about their jobs (16%).

Of those who did propose flexible work, almost two-thirds said their employers initially granted the request but then didn't live up to the promise.

Those who got a flat turn-down when they asked for a flexible arrangement recounted the following reasons. See if they sound familiar:

* We can't give it to you and not to others (52%).

* You will not be available to others (48%).

* We have never done it before (24%).

* You won't be as productive as when you worked full time (8%).

* Your job is not conducive to flexible hours (5%).

* There's too much work (5%).

* It wouldn't fit into a team atmosphere (5%).

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Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Los Angeles Times, Business News, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053,or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com.

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