Flextime agreements, combined with a greater focus on performance metrics, were supposed to help change all that. As of last year, says human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates Inc., 75% of companies offered some kind of flexible work arrangement. But so far, these policies have had mixed results. Working remotely can leave employees feeling isolated and managers feeling they lack control. And flextimers often find themselves squeezed into policies that are anything but flexible. "The work-life movement has always had a heavy layer of one-size-fits-all-ism," says Stewart D. Friedman, who runs the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School.
That complaint is prompting many companies to revamp their policies, says Hewitt's Carol Sladek, who leads the firm's work-life practice. Now more and more managers are using a template of questions to help them design the most fitting arrangement. "There's definitely a focus away from the structure" of rigid flextime policies, says Sladek.
In a sense, flexibility is becoming more flexible. At Deloitte & Touche, years of stagnant enrollment in formal flexibility programs have led managers to help teams create flexible schedules among themselves. Staffers fill out a survey that helps them set goals as a group (reducing the number of times they interrupt co-workers off-hours, for instance) and jointly keep track of people's schedules so they know, say, when someone has reserved time with their kids. Deloitte is also experimenting with something called "mass career customization" that redefines flexibility over the course of a career rather than by the hours in a week, helping employees adjust their pace, workload, schedule, and work roles during various life stages.
Another common complaint from early flexibility adopters is that the off-site existence can be a real morale killer. IBM found that out the hard way. While the company had saved millions in real estate costs by getting 40% of its workers to toil off-site, by 2002, many of its telecommuters felt out of the loop. Just over half of the folks in Daniel S. Pelino's central region reported favorable levels of engagement. "People felt really disconnected," says Pelino, now general manager of IBM's Global Health Care & Life Sciences business.
In response, Pelino started an initiative, "Making IBM Feel Small," to reconnect remote workers. Nomads who drop by the office now find a space designed with their needs in mind. Faxes and copiers are in familiar spots from one office to another, and conference room walls have been replaced with glass so colleagues will know when their co-workers are on site. After Pelino brought the initiative to senior management, IBM revitalized IBM Clubs, which bring together colleagues for parties, picnics, sports events, and other extracurricular activities. Making IBM Feel Small has since spread to more than 33 locations worldwide.
Over at Sun Microsystems Inc., another flextime pioneer, managers found the company's "Open Work" program could be, well, too open. About four years ago, as better communications technology attracted more people to the program, a growing number of employees began electing to work from home without checking with their bosses. "A lot of managers were uncomfortable with `out of sight, out of mind,'" says Ann Bamesberger, the vice-president leading the program. In response, her team added an online test that helps managers find good candidates for the program. Employees are assigned broad profiles that reflect how they work, including such nicknames as "Mobile Collaborator" or "Design Specialist." Managers and their reports are expected to hash out a solution that offers flexibility and control. "There are certain types of jobs where a free-for-all doesn't work," says Bamesberger. Then she catches herself, warning: "A free-for-all never works." By Jena McGregor