As Cuts Loom, Will Working From Home Lead to a Layoff?

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

With the recession forcing businesses to cut back on workers, employees are increasingly doing all they can to hang onto their jobs and are forgoing many of the benefits that once allowed them to balance the demands of work and family life.

In good times, workers frequently seized the opportunity to use "flex time" and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days. But, according to workplace consultants, human resources specialists and employees themselves, those days are slipping away. More workers are giving up those arrangements, or resisting asking about them in the first place, out of fears that doing so will make them appear less committed to their work and therefore more expendable.

Some workers' advocates say they are particularly concerned about the consequences for women.

There's now a "silent fright" among workers, said Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More, a 21-year-old networking group, likening the atmosphere to what she saw 20 years ago, when working mothers were advised not to keep pictures of their children in their cubicles.

"That's what it feels like we're returning to. Work as many hours as you possibly can. Make yourself indispensable. Don't ever complain. Don't ever ask for anything," she said. "I'm just horrified we may as well just forget the last 20 years."

For their part, many managers are doing little to calm those concerns, human resource consultants say. They tend to view options such as flex time and telecommuting as retention tools, experts say, and in recessions, fear of unemployment is just as effective.

There is little data on the recession's impact on so-called work-life initiatives in the private sector. But there is anecdotal evidence that, while few companies are formally suspending programs, employees feel pressure to reconsider their work arrangements.

Madeliene Arcega, an office manager at a New York media company, said she recently had to give up telecommuting. Since returning to full-time work after maternity leave, she had been working two days a week from home. But as the recession deepened, she said, her company began trimming positions. Arcega, 36, was allowed to stay as long as she took on more responsibilities and came to the office five days a week. She was able to get a relative to care for her toddler, but the arrangement is not ideal.

"I was worried the alternative was no job at all," she said.

Teresa Hopke, talent management director for the national accounting firm RSM McGladrey said that while senior leadership at her company remains committed to flexibility, some middle managers have become more resistant.

"I have heard comments like, 'now is our chance to take back the company,' [and] comments about the fact employees shouldn't feel entitled to ask for flexibility during this time because they should be lucky to have a job," she said.

As a result, top executives at the firm plan to emphasize to employees that alternative work options are still available.

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