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Beyond the 9-to-5

Why Flexible Hours and Telecommuting Are on the Rise
Beyond the 9-to-5

Brenda Olesuk says the accounting industry has been smart about using flex time and telecommuting as a retention tool.

In 2003, about 4.4 million Americans were telecommuting, to some extent, instead of showing up at the office. In 2010, that number is expected to surpass 100 million. At the same time, the trend toward allowing employees to work flexible or non-traditional hours has also risen sharply in recent years. Why the surges? As it turns out, even during a recession, companies still value their best talent and are increasingly willing to let them craft a workday around their personal and professional needs. Employers say they benefit because happy workers are productive workers.

It’s no wonder accounting is such an attractive field for women, considering what a leader the industry has been in providing work-life benefits like flexible schedules and telecommuting.

“It’s a retention tool,” said Brenda Olesuk, director of marketing for Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. in Holyoke. “In fact, accounting firms, as a rule, have employed flex time, technology, and telecommuting as a both a recruiting tool and as a retention tool.”

Part of the shift has to do with the rise of women in the accounting field; they make up more than 60% of all accountants nationwide.

“That has changed the complexion of the industry over the past couple of decades,” Olesuk noted. “Women, of course, have families and often want to have the flexibility of being able to have a family and a career. These are highly educated, accomplished people, and the industry has been very smart about using technology and flex time to attract and retain talent, especially women.”

But it’s not just accounting, and not only women who are reaping these benefits. Across the board, aided by advancements in communications technology, workers are increasingly being given the option of working at home, or coming into the office for only part of their workweek, otherwise staying connected by phone, e-mail, and Internet.

The upward trend has been pronounced. In 2003, according to a report from the American Interactive Research Group, about 4.4 million Americans telecommuted from home. A year later, that number had almost doubled, and in 2010, it’s expected to surpass 100 million — almost a third of the country’s entire population, working or not.

That’s a startling increase, but it doesn’t surprise Lorie Valle-Yanez, vice president and chief diversity officer at MassMutual. That’s because the Springfield-based financial-services firm has long been recognized as a leader in providing work-life benefits to its employees, even being named to Working Mother magazine’s 100-best-companies list 10 times.

“I like to think we have a culture of flexibility here. If you walked through the halls and talked to people, you’d see it’s less of a formal program and more a part of the DNA of the company,” she explained. “We have a long history of supporting the work-life balance of employees, helping employees meet their obligations inside and outside of work.”

It’s a trend that should continue as a perfect storm brews, with employers increasingly recognizing the benefits of keeping their top talent happy, and a generation of 20-somethings entering the work world expecting such treatment to a degree not seen before.

But working from home and setting one’s own hours isn’t a right, say those who spoke with BusinessWest; it’s a privilege earned by the most valuable, productive workers. And used correctly, such flexibility is proving to be a classic win-win for companies and their employees.

Doing Their Homework

Employee retention is no small matter; depending on the industry and the position, the replacement cost of an entry-level staff position — including money spent on recruitment, hiring, training, and orienting a new employee — can top $10,000, and often much more. And that doesn’t include the lost time and energy that management must expend on such efforts.

That’s why keeping top talent happy is critical, even during a recession.

“Absolutely, it’s attractive for people who want to come work here,” Valle-Yanez said. “One of the selling points when you come to this company is its flexibility. It certainly demonstrates that this company cares about employees’ well-being, and it shows in increased productivity, improved morale, improved engagement, and improved loyalty across the board. People know they can come into this organization and be able to manage their work-life challenges.”

Smaller companies are also starting to recognize the benefits of giving employees an alternative to the 9-to-5 cubicle shift.

“Offering flex time and mixed telecommuting arrangements is something we’ve done for a number of years,” said Michelle van Schouwen, president of van Schouwen Associates, a Longmeadow-based advertising and marketing firm.

“Back when we started, it was born of various necessities — so a valued employee moving to a different state could still do most of their work, or for a parent whose child care ended before our office hours did,” van Schouwen explained. “As we began to work with it, we realized it was a good fit with the type of staffing we had.”

Specifically, she said, her firm typically hires people who have an independent streak and know how to manage themselves, rather than needing lots of hand-holding. “They tend to be the kind of people who would stay late and do the job at the office, people who know what they’re responsible for and want to get it done. They have that internal sense of professionalism that means they’re going to get their work done.”

That’s an important factor, Valle-Yanez said, because not everyone has the discipline to stay focused on work when no one is looking.

“I believe flexibility is not an entitlement; it’s an earned privilege,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not one size fits all. Not everyone is able to work from home. If somebody is not performing, it’s probably less likely they’ll have the same flexibility as someone who performs very well.”

The type of job someone has obviously makes a difference, too, she said, noting that a call-center representative would need to work largely on site during regular business hours. But those whose jobs allow them to work from home, on their own schedule, are likely to appreciate the privilege — and that’s good for productivity.

“People who are good performers have earned the right and earned that flexibility. They value that flexibility a lot, and they’re very productive employees,” Valle-Yanez said. “If you think about it as an earned privilege, you don’t want that privilege to be taken away. So employees who have that privilege tend to be highly motivated.”

Small World

Olesuk noted that home offices and corporate offices are more connected by technology than ever before, and many tasks can be performed at night or on weekends, allowing employees who have children or other responsibilities to set their own schedule.

“In our firm, we have all sorts of people, men and women alike, who are able to work from home or from their office equally well,” she said. “Technology is an enormous component allowing us to do our job from any location, and the flexibility of being able to manage our hours, whether it’s full-time or part-time, and still serve the client and meet the firm’s needs, is a very significant tool. If we were to go back to everyone doing 8 to 5 from this office, we’d have real retention issues.”

Being an accounting and business-consulting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka (MBK) is able to observe this move toward flexibility outside its own walls, too.

For example, James Calnan, partner and director of the firm’s Health Services Division, sees a definite increase in telecommuting in the medical field, especially for key staff hired for their specific skill set and judgment.

One of his clients employs a director of finance who’s scheduled to work from home two days per week, with the company supplying the computer, cell phone, and other technology. Another client has field reps in multiple states, and staff meetings are conducted through a dial-in format. While it’s usually key personnel who have more ability to telecommute, Calnan said, most levels of administrative staff are utilizing flex scheduling — again, perhaps spurred by more women in the workforce having to juggle work and home responsibilities.

Donna Roundy, MBK’s senior audit manager for its Not-for-Profit Division, says nonprofit organizations are increasingly allowing telecommunicating as a way to attract and retain skilled individuals in key roles. Outside of these key positions, she said, most clients typically want their staff on premises.

Meanwhile, Kris Houghton, a partner and Director of the firm’s Tax Division, says the service sector most successfully utilizes technology for recruitment and retention, with fields such as accounting, law, engineering, medicine, human resources, and computers services best equipped to operate in that ‘virtual-office’ environment.

Sales forces also benefit from technology and ability to telecommute, she added. While support-level staff may not always have telecommuting opportunities, Houghton said, there has definitely been an increase in flexible hours across the board.

Telecommuting can also serve specific budgetary purposes, Houghton explained. For instance, instead of bringing a medical coder on board full-time, which a practice may not need, it can hire a coder part-time who does the practice’s work from home at night — a more efficient use of resources.

Homeward Bound

At MassMutual, Valle-Yanez said, while scheduling and workplace flexibility is built into the philosophy and culture, each decision on where and when someone works is typically made between that employee and his or her manager, taking into account both outside circumstances and the employee’s work habits and productivity. When the arrangement works, everyone is happy.

“It’s a nice option,” she said. “You don’t have to face a snowstorm. You can do your work at home. In some cases, people are more productive at home; there are often less day-to-day interruptions, and they’re surprised how much they get done from their home office.”

In terms of productivity and retention, van Schouwen had similar thoughts.

“It’s all positive — again, when using the right people,” she said. “For example, among our employees, we have parents of younger children who likely stay with the job in part because it allows them a work-life balance. In addition, we’ve been able to keep people who have moved away with a spouse or made other life changes that would have made an ordinary commute inconvenient.

“For a small company,” she concluded, “it’s a benefit that’s both affordable and valued, and that’s a precious thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]

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