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Employers increase flexible workplace options

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."

The number of Americans who worked from home or remotely at least one day a month jumped 74 percent between 2005 and 2008 to more than 17 million people, according to WorldatWork. And the association says recent trends suggest that a growing number of firms are no longer reserving flexible arrangements for their salaried workers but extending them to hourly workers too.

"Employees are becoming more prone to actually ask for some form of flexibility," Stanley said. "And employers are really starting to see how flexibility benefits the organization. Employees that can work when, how and where they work best are productive."

McCormick began implementing formal flexible workplace policies a few years ago, when an employee survey showed flexibility as the top need.

Cheryl Dempsey, a manager in McCormick's human relations department who has been with the company for more than a decade, can now work from home on Fridays rather than make the 40-minute commute from her home in New Freedom, Pa. She can sign on to her McCormick desktop and forward her business line to her home phone. For Dempsey, it's a productive day, without typical office interruptions. And she can save on gas.

"I so cherish it," Dempsey said. "It allows you a little bit of flexibility in your time. You can put on a pot of coffee and sit in your sweats, and you're not facing the hassles of driving back and forth. It's a nice day to look forward to when you don't have to face the traffic."

More than 600 employees in Baltimore-based CareFirst's 5,000-person work force have some sort of agreement to work outside the office up to several days a week, said Curt Jordan, senior director of benefits and staffing. Employees who telecommute range from claims processors to nurses to IT professionals, he said.

"Employers are looking for retention, and this is a retention tool to try to build an environment that is conducive to getting the best out of our associates," Jordan said. "It's a good carrot. If we are recruiting in a position and it's a competitive area, it could be the difference between us and another employer."

Eliot Wagonheim, the founder of business law firm Wagonheim Law in Hunt Valley, says he looks for the best-qualified people first, then works to accommodate their workplace needs. One of the firm's secretaries works three days a week and often alternates which days that will be, he said. Such a nonmonetary perk can help retain employees and reduce turnover costs, he said.

"Technological advances in how we manage cases and matters have made it so much easier to overcome physical distance as well as time distance," Wagonheim said. "Unless it concerns a direct client service, I don't care if people do their work between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. ... and are not in the office bright and early at 9 a.m."

When they founded Harris-Kupfer Architects seven years ago, married couple Leslie Harris and Ken Kupfer wanted to maintain a balance in their work and personal lives. As they expanded to an office on Howard Street in Baltimore and began hiring, they wanted to extend that balance to their employees.

"Leslie and I both worked for downtown firms and got a feel for what we really liked," said Kupfer, a principal. "Flexibility is really important to us."

If employees need to stay late to complete a project on deadline, they know they can come in later the next day "to catch up." And sometimes their own children, ages 8 and 6, come to work on days off from school. For that purpose, Harris and Kupfer carved out lounge space in the office where all employees' kids can plug in laptops and video games.

Architect Takira Swan said the firm's flexibility allowed her to make up hours when she wanted to attend a two-week architecture workshop out of state.

"Basically, I just spread it out little by little, working extra hours during the day," she said, adding that the firm's approach has helped her achieve some balance in her life. "Work is important, but you have other obligations to fulfill. It balances out the stresses."

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