Workplace flexibility can be key to recruiting, retaining top workers

December 2, 2012

with polling by Peyton M. Craighill

When Kelly Dresen became pregnant with her second child, she went to her manager to hand in her resignation. She didn’t think she’d be able to continue working in a director’s position and keep up with her commitments to her growing family.

But her boss at Comprehensive Language Center had a different idea.

“He actually talked me into this teleworking situation,” Dresen said.

These days, Dresen works for the Arlington-based foreign language translation company from home on a part-time basis. That set-up, she said, has allowed her to keep her skills fresh, maintain her contacts in the industry and meet the demands of her family life.


Kerry Kaufman, an employee at Freddie Mac who has a flexible work schedule, works from her home in Lansdowne. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)

“For someone in my situation, it’s ideal,” Dresen said.

Dresen is among a large group of Washington area workers who are not content to make their personal lives fit in around the fringes of a rigidly defined nine-to-five work schedule.

A recent survey conducted by The Washington Post found that 88 percent of workers in the region say that workplace flexibility is important to them, a figure which equals the percentage identifying health care benefits as important to their job. Flexibility was more valuable to employed respondents than having a chance for a promotion or being recognized for professional accomplishments.

Local workers seem hungry for the opportunity to build a work schedule that is compatible with their lifestyle.

At a time when many employers are acutely focused on retaining top talent, human resource experts say that being attuned to these values and accommodating them can better position a company to hang onto its employees.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac said recruitment and retention goals played a role in its decision to offer flexible work arrangements.

“In order to be competitive from a talent acquisition perspective, we have to offer this,” said Kristin Talastas, Freddie Mac’s senior director of human resources.

Even then, the McLean-based firm faced a key obstacle.

“There was a feeling that you could only telecommute or work away from the office if your particular [boss] was supportive of it,” Talastas said.

So, about 18 months ago, the company decided to standardize its previously ad-hoc flexible work offerings to make them fair and consistent for all employees.

Still, the human resources team acknowledged that simply putting such a policy in place wouldn’t necessarily mean that employees would take advantage of it.

“We knew that we really had to start at the top,” said Zenia Raudsepp, vice president of human resources. “Flexible work arrangements had to be fully endorsed by our CEO and our senior management team.”

With support from then-chief executive Charles E. “Ed” Haldeman Jr. and later from current chief executive Donald H. Layton, more staffers have adopted alternative work arrangements.

Freddie Mac offers a variety of flexible work opportunities, including telecommuting, part-time scheduling and varied arrival or departure times. It also has what it calls a “compressed work week” option, which means that an employee fits 10 days of work into nine days, thereby allowing them to take every 10th day off.

Kerry Kaufman, a senior product development manager, switched to a four-day work week in September when she returned from maternity leave. On one of those days, she works from her home in Lansdowne.

“Any time that I don’t spend commuting enables me to spend more time with my daughter,” Kaufman said.

She said the transition has been fairly seamless thanks to simple tools, including the company’s internal instant messaging program and an e-mail alert system that lets her know when she’s received a voicemail on her office phone line.

“My current plan is to do this for the long haul because it honestly works out so well,” Kaufman said.

While a move toward flexible work was a major cultural shift at Freddie Mac, it has been the norm at organic beverage seller Honest Tea since its inception.

The Bethesda-based company, founded in 1998, does not have an official flexible work policy for its 115 employees. But, Debra Schwartz, vice president of human resources, said nearly all staffers take advantage of Honest Tea’s relaxed attitude about telecommuting and unusual hours.

“Plenty of employees have come to us and said, ‘I couldn’t work for any other place because I wouldn’t have the flexibility,’ ” Schwartz said.

Patrick Jammet, the company’s director of field marketing, said that Honest Tea’s embrace of flexible work has helped him collaborate with members of his team that work on the West Coast. Through teleworking or adjusting his hours, he can bridge the time zone difference and communicate with them better.

Jammet also said flexible scheduling has helped him take care of small personal matters such as waiting for a delivery or a repairman.

Because of this approach, “It becomes less of a job and more of a lifestyle,” Jammet said.

At some companies, finding the right way to manage a dispersed workforce has been a work in progress.

In 2010, Booz Allen Hamilton began a gradual shift in its Washington area offices toward “hoteling,” a set-up in which workers don’t have their own offices or desks, but rather reserve a work space on occasions when they need to come to the office.

While it has helped shrink the McLean-based firm’s real estate footprint and reduced commute times for many of its workers, “We’ve been struggling a bit with how to keep people connected to their teams,” said Rick Kinne, director of infrastructure core services.

To combat that, they’ve recently introduced a new concept called “neighborhoods,” in which a supervisor can reserve a whole block of desks so a team can get together more easily and collaborate.

Human resource experts say that there has been a trend over the past five to 10 years toward increased flexibility in the workplace as evidence mounts that it correlates with higher productivity, higher engagement and lower turnover.

Workers, too, are fueling the shift toward flexible work arrangements.

“I don’t think that it’s necessarily that employees are wanting it [more],” said Rose Stanley, work-life strategies practice leader at nonprofit research group WorldAtWork. “They’re more willing to actually go and ask for it.”

The Post poll found that local workers across age groups valued workplace flexibility nearly equally: 88 percent of 18-39 year olds described it as important, as did 89 percent of 40-49 year olds and 88 percent of 50-64 year olds.

Flexible hours are far more important to working women than men. Half of women describe this as “extremely important” compared with just 25 percent of men. That 25-point gap was the largest difference between the sexes on any of the workplace traits tested in the poll. The differences between the sexes balance out when judging the overall importance of flexibility.

Local human resource professionals said that flexible work, particularly telecommuting, may be especially attractive in the Washington region because of traffic congestion, which ranks among the worst in the nation.

Also, since the federal government offers telecommuting, local human resource workers said that increases pressure for other employers to do the same.

Despite broad appeal, flexible work arrangements come with challenges. For employers, there can be a reduced ability to oversee and give direction to a staffer.

And for employees, particularly those who telecommute, “They feel they could be looked over for a promotion,” said Lisa Horn, a co-project director for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Some businesses, especially those with large numbers of hourly workers, may not find flexible work set-ups to be practical. And still other firms might not see some forms of flexibility as consistent with their needs.

At Hughes Network Systems in Germantown, workers are allowed to start anytime between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and leave between 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. However, telecommuting is not generally an accepted practice.

“Our executives believe in face time, so we have these core hours of nine to four,” said Lynne Rusnak, senior director of human resources. “It’s just kind of always been the culture here that things get done faster and better when you can work with someone side by side.”

Though companies have differing perspectives on how or whether to make flexible work a part of their office culture, experts say there’s little doubt such policies have become a critical way to attract the best employees.

“HR professionals are saying, ‘there’s something out there that’s more important to employees than money,’ ” Horn said. “And it’s flexibility.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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