Leslie Harris, Ken Kupfer

Harris-Kupfer Architects is an architectural firm in Baltimore that offers several workplace flexibility options. It was founded by a married couple, Leslie Harris and Ken Kupfer, who are shown with their children Ari, 81/2, and Adrienne, 6. Having a family, they understand the need for flexibility at the workplace and tried to incorporate work/life balance into their business. They have a lounge area that is often used by employees' kids when school is closed or there is a snow day. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / January 24, 2011)

Employees at Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield, the region's largest insurer, can work from home several days a week.

Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co. lets some full-time spice plant employees work four-day weeks.

And in the "flexible workplace" of Harris-Kupfer Architects in Baltimore, employees' kids can tag along to the office, where they curl up on the lounge couch to play video games on snow days.

However they define it, more companies in Maryland and beyond have adopted flexible workplace policies. An idea that had received little more than lip service for years has gotten a boost recently not only from employers but from the federal government.

President Barack Obama endorsed more liberal workplace policies last year during a White House forum — where business owners, workers and labor leaders brainstormed employee-friendly policies — and in December, Obama signed legislation requiring federal agencies to give eligible employees the option to telecommute.

These policies, workplace experts say, are finally catching up with worker demands for flexibility, driven in no small part by fundamental changes in the U.S. work force — more women, more families in which both parents work, more employees who help care for aging parents.

And thanks to technology that allows workers to sign in to their desktops from anywhere with an Internet connection, lines between home and office are being blurred as never before.

Employers that have taken steps recently to formalize flexibility programs promote the benefits as they try to stay competitive in a recovering economy. They contend that having options like telecommuting, flexible schedules, compressed workweeks and job sharing are crucial tools in attracting prospects, retaining talent and increasing productivity.

And there's another payoff, according to McCormick executives: fostering an "emotional commitment" to the employer. In turn, that improves morale while reducing absenteeism and employee turnover, said Kelly McCaffery, the company's vice president for global human resources.

"We are going on all cylinders with this, offering any kind of flexibility we can make happen," McCaffery said. "Wherever we can be flexible, it has really helped us with employee morale and helped employees balance work and life demands."

As Obama put it, "Workplace flexibility isn't just a women's issue" but rather "an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses."

According to a December survey by job search website CareerBuilder, one in three employers expects to offer more flexible work arrangements this year. Three-quarters said that means alternate schedules, such as starting early and leaving early, and nearly half said they would enable telecommuting. Others said they would offer a compressed workweek, shorter summer hours as a perk and job sharing.

In that survey, 45 percent of job seekers, ranked a company's ability to offer a flexible schedule as more important than salary.

"Some companies may not be able to provide competitive compensation, and they're concerned the top talent is going to leave the organization, so they will provide perks like a flexible work arrangement to attract and hold on to talent," said Jennifer Grasz, a spokeswoman for CareerBuilder, which is co-owned by The Baltimore Sun's parent, Tribune Co.

The flexible workplace can come with risks — and, some say, costs.

When Congress debated the recently enacted telework bill, supporters billed the effort as an energy-saving measure that would eventually cut overhead costs at federal agencies. But opponents objected to the cost of putting the program in place.

Rose M. Stanley, the work/life practice leader for WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources association, cautioned that employers need to carefully weigh potential risks or costs before launching such programs.

Implementation can be tricky. For instance, when offering compressed workweeks, an employer might have to modify how hours are split to avoid overtime as required by fair-labor laws. And telecommuting employees should take steps to focus on their work, Stanley said.

"We usually advocate that someone else watch the children and that the teleworkers separate themselves from them," she said. "Break times and lunch times are times that are allowable to be with the children."