Jim Malone wasn't sure what he was going to do when the company where he had started working only nine months before told its employees that his division would be moving from Pennsylvania, where he lives, to Delaware.
His commute to work had turned from a short hop into a 60-mile drive.
So Malone, a senior finance manager at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, worked out a flextime plan with his boss.
"It's definitely give or take with your manager," Malone said. "If we didn't have [the arrangement], it would be a real struggle for our family."
Flextime -- which can include coming in and leaving the office early, a compressed workweek in which an employee has all or part of Friday off, a reduced work schedule or even telecommuting -- gained in popularity during the Internet boom of the late 1990s. As employers were trying to attract talent in heavy demand, they began offering this benefit, among others, to potential employees.
AstraZeneca says many of its employees use some form of flextime, but a lot of companies don't offer a formal plan to employees, for varying reasons.
"I think it's still viable, but it's less in use today than a few years ago," said Brian Clapp, head of the Philadelphia office of Right Management Consultants. "It's all about the supply and demand of talent."
According to the most recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the nation's 99.6 million full-time wage and salary workers in May 2001, 28.8 percent claimed some form of flextime arrangement, with about one-third of them saying it was as part of a formal company program.
But now that the curve has shifted, with more bright people looking for jobs than the supply of positions out there, workplace experts say many companies seem to be putting less emphasis on this benefit.
However, they don't expect the perk to go away altogether, and they still sense that deals are being cut with some people -- here and there.
"A lot of it goes under the radar; a lot of it doesn't get documented in the statistics," said Lisa Levey, director of advisory services at Catalyst Women, a nonprofit organization that works to promote women in business.
But there are factors that contribute to the use of flextime beyond whether a company offers it -- especially for women -- including the fear that others will perceive them as less committed to their career if they have an alternative schedule, according to experts.
Of 948 senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies, only 15 percent of women and 20 percent of men thought they could use a flexible work arrangement without jeopardizing their careers, according to a Catalyst Women survey conducted last month.
Even if a company offers a flextime benefit, there are times when the staff doesn't consider it a real option -- especially in certain industries, such as law and accounting, Clapp said. "It's an idea that you're either on or off the track. The expectation is that you have to be in the office because this is how we do it."
Levey agreed that the fear of career penalties and of being "taken off the path" exists because colleagues might consider flextime arrangements as special treatment, or they might think that an employee with flextime isn't a devoted worker.
Allison Cella, 29, says she has dealt with this firsthand.
After returning from maternity leave a year ago, Cella, who was an accounting manager at a multibillion-dollar company in New Jersey, approached her superiors with a pitch for a reduced work schedule.
Cella's husband, a finance manager, was often on the road and she was finding it difficult to balance her time with her daughter and her work.
"I had spent my whole life working so hard, my whole career moving up the corporate ladder, but I realized that I didn't want to miss out on all the small stuff with my daughter," she said.
The company listened to her pitch -- and made her an offer. She could work three days a week but would have to agree to work full weeks and weekends at the end of the year and each quarter, during the company's busiest times.
In addition, they took away Cella's health benefits and sick days, and they cut her 15 vacation days down to six. They also dropped her manager status -- and made her move out of her office. Meanwhile, her salary was not reduced by the 40 percent equivalent of the time reduction -- instead, the company cut 10 percent off the top, then gave her 55 percent of that abbreviated salary.
"They took away a lot. . . . They weren't able to mold me into what they thought I was," Cella said. "But to me, the payoff is worth it."
Something that bothers her more than the cut in benefits is the response she has received -- not from her peers, who she says seem happy for her -- but from her superiors.
"The downside is that to people above me on the corporate ladder track, I appear as a sellout," she said. "I lost the respect of some people. People who are the moms that work 80 hours a week and have nannies -- they don't have the same respect for me."
Cella said she often speculates about what causes the resentment, saying she remains a devoted worker, and wonders if it might be that others feel she's getting special treatment. Cella is the first person to have made a flextime arrangement in her accounting department, which is 80 to 90 percent female.
Cella and others who work on alternative schedules have begun to encounter the true meaning of "flexible."
They say that while a plan may be in place, there are times when either party involved can't stick to it. There are some employers who, like Cella's, often try to "stretch it," and some employees, including Malone, who say they believe there are weeks when they have no choice but to go in during normal hours every day.
"The important thing to make it work is you have to be flexible," said Malone, who has a 2-year-old daughter in addition to the long commute. "Some weeks I have to go to Delaware every day of the week."
Malone's work arrangement consists of going into the office early Monday through Thursday and working from home on Friday mornings. He also works a compressed workweek, so he's off on Friday afternoons.
Alice McCaslin, who works four nine-hour days as a senior finance analyst at Abbott Laboratories outside of Chicago, said she, too, has to be flexible to make her situation work. She said there are times when she will have to come into the office on her day off, Monday, but that the company gives her comp time in return.
"I give, I get my job done, and Abbott gives back," said McCaslin, who made the alternative schedule so she could spend more time with her two daughters. "It's good for me and it's good for my family."
Some 40 percent of Abbott employees use flextime, which is often arranged on a case-by-case basis. But the company also has a Web job board, where employees who want to work reduced or alternative hours can apply for other jobs -- or even post listings to "job share" with another worker who might be in the same position.
Though some companies are more progressive in the area of flexible work arrangements than others, experts tend to agree that eventually more and more companies will have to move forward in the arena as employees become more mobile and put more emphasis on different areas of their lives.
"There are more and more men, post-9/11," looking for other work arrangements, said Clapp of Right Management Consultants. "Before that, there were more people willing to sell their souls for advancement."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, slightly more men than women worked flexible schedules even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which made many Americans rethink their approach to life. In May 2001, about 30 percent of men and 27.4 percent of women said they were on some type of flex schedule.
The data include not only people who arrange schedules by choice, but also those who work alternative shifts, including overnight, which may be a contributing factor to the higher percentage of men using flextime in this particular survey. According to the data, men were more likely than women to work alternative shifts, 16.4 percent compared with 12.1 percent.
But as more employees desire a flexible schedule and as technology continues to evolve, with laptops, e-mail, cell phones and pagers only getting better, the fear that employees won't be connected to the office by working from home or at varying hours is slowly disappearing. And as companies become more global, with work taking place at all hours, flexible schedules -- from both an employer and employee standpoint -- are becoming more necessary.
"How work gets done is changing dramatically," said Levey of Catalyst Women. "If you're in a Starbucks on your laptop or on a conference call at home -- that's work now."