By Sara Sutton Fell
There is an increasingly notable trend that promises to redefine the way businesses save money and employees enjoy higher levels of job satisfaction: the rise of telecommuting and flextime, twin phenomena that combine technology, economy, efficiency, proven results, and satisfaction between workers and management. The acceptance of these facts is far different from the days when these ideas were merely speculative arguments about a glorious future where computers would seemingly revolutionize the traditional definitions of work and leisure. Now it is commonplace for corporations, from small enterprises to household brands, to have flextime or telecommuting positions that accommodate the expectations of employees with individual needs or newfound duties that require greater latitude at both home and the office.
This development is not a demand for reduced work hours or lessened responsibilities; most employees simply need flexibility in when, where, and how they do their work. Among call centers, where women are an integral part of the workforce, telecommuting is a proven winner. The advantages, which include reduced office space, legal expenses, utilities, compliance issues, and other forms of overhead, are too many to ignore. By distributing the fruits of worker autonomy around the globe (call centers are, by their very nature, international enterprises), executives can increase a company’s success. At the same time – and this is a benefit too rare to even remotely dismiss – telecommuting helps workers flourish. Employees can handle calls with greater ease, and thus increase their own longevity with a business that might otherwise soon be looking for costly replacements. More to the point, call centers are a model example of telecommuting in action: they operate efficiently, entrusting workers with key assignments that are both personally rewarding and financially promising.
Another key benefit is the way telecommuting or flextime allows workers to avoid a false choice between work and family. For example, consider an executive who needs to take his or her child to a weekly tutoring appointment which falls near the end of the day. In this case, if the executive was able to adjust his or her schedule on these days, coming into work two hours early in order to be able to leave two hours early, there would be no negative impact on performance. In fact, working during the quieter “off” hours might even prove more productive. Additionally, the executive would likely have a higher morale and be more loyal to a company that is willing to consider and respect his or her needs. This type of situation is an opportunity for companies to think and act more creatively and find a mutually beneficial solution.
The flextime concept works nicely for call center management, but it can produce problems with agents who must adhere to specific work schedules that are predicated on projected call traffic. Still, the essence of flextime can be applied by allowing agents to swap shifts, or parts of shifts, in order to accommodate personal commitments and obligations. Also, with advance planning, these personal needs can often be addressed prior to a schedule being posted. Although this creates additional headaches and challenges for management, it is well worth it when experienced agents can be retained and turnover reduced.
A recent survey overwhelmingly confirms that almost two-thirds of women cite flexible work arrangements as being either extremely or very important to them. (This study, conducted by the Harvard Business Review, is one of several reports that employers, to their credit, view seriously.) Many of these same women also state that flextime is more valuable to them than higher pay or additional vacation time. The reason for this phenomenon is clear: employees caring for a child or an elderly relative want to maintain their career but require different hours to be most productive. Companies who ignore these circumstances compromise their ability to attract and retain talent. One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started my first business was from a CEO of a public company. He said that the best way to maintain a happy workforce is to respect an employee’s commitment to take care of his or her family. Anytime an employer makes employees choose between career and personal duty, they chip away at the trust, loyalty, and morale that the employee has in the company.
It is also important to note that many workers who leave a company do so for reasons that, although they are not directly related to flextime or telecommuting, could be mitigated by these options. The pressure and rigidity of some businesses create displeasure and anxiety; people leave these places without regret. Yet, this loss of talent has a lasting effect on a company’s ability to perform, from its pursuit of clients to its reputation among prospective employees. Translation: word gets around if a business has a bad work environment.
Meeting these challenges is exciting and necessary. The broad acceptance among employees for and the significant awareness among companies about flextime and telecommuting are worthy of our heightened attention. These tools are a plus for business, an advantage that can mean the difference between success and failure, excellence and mediocrity. If we embrace this opportunity, we can help build more good – and great – businesses, places where employees are happy and productive and proud of how they are working and living their lives.
Sara Sutton Fell is the founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a resource for flextime and telecommuting jobs. A successful entrepreneur and mother, Sara lives in Colorado and is a frequent commentator about work-life matters.
[From the December 2008/January 2009 issue of AnswerStat magazine]