Eleven years ago, stuck aboard a bouncing little commuter jet, circling Boston in a gusty snowstorm that would not let up, I found myself cursing my fancy job as a consultant, my hard-driving boss, and my crazy, unmanageable life. Plus I was sobbing. My daughter's Christmas play started in 15 minutes and I had promised I absolutely, positively would not miss it. I missed it.
A few months later, I quit. I had found a publishing company where my new boss told me I could not only travel less, I could work at home two days a week. When I started, I discovered dozens of colleagues like me, holding it together at home and on the job thanks to flextime. Almost every kind of arrangement seemed okay with our boss—as long as we delivered results.
Filled with relief and gratitude, we did. For many of us, flextime made both a healthy family situation and a meaningful work experience possible at once. It was a lifesaver.
That's why, when I was promoted a few years later, I was determined to follow my boss's example. With my help, I vowed, parents would find that elusive balance between kids and work; adult children would be able to care for their elderly relatives with less stress. And everyone would be happy.
Except, in pretty short order, I wasn't. Within weeks the flextime I had so loved as an employee had become a throbbing headache for me as a boss—with its tangled-up logistics, lowered productivity, and contentious employee relationships. (Who knew non-flextime users could resent their flextime colleagues so bitterly?)
Still, I kept my mouth shut. I knew flextime had to exist or I'd lose good people. I also didn't want to sound like the hypocrite I'd become. But most of all, I was silent because I thought I was alone in my struggle. I wasn't—not by a mile.
Over the past four years, my husband, Jack, and I have spoken with thousands of bosses caught in that same bind. They get the virtues of nontraditional scheduling but grapple with its implementation. Recently, we codified our research, and the result is a four-point list of tacit truths about flextime—from the boss's point of view.
Bosses wish employees understood that their priority is competitiveness.
Bosses have hearts and consciences, but not at the expense of the company's success. Flextime makes profitability harder. On the revenue front, for instance, flextime employees are simply in the office less (if they're telecommuting) or can't always be reached (even if they're working four ten-hour days). Not good—not good for the customer, and not for the boss who gets called instead and suddenly has a piece of work on his plate that he knows isn't really his.
On the expense front, there is no pretty way around the fact that flextime decreases output. Employees who are "working at home" are not always working (more about this later). The bosses we spoke with estimated that when employees go from traditional full-time to flextime, they lose about 20 percent of their productivity. Ouch.
Secondly, bosses wish employees understood exactly what flextime is. Some employees strike part-time arrangements with their companies and are paid accordingly. Flextime is different.
Technically, flextime is full-time work, or close to it, but with an elastic, negotiated schedule. Still, some employees persist in seeing flextime as if it were a part-time deal in terms of hours or, worse, from a boss's point of view, as a defined benefit, like the company dental plan.
Your boss sees flextime as an old-fashioned chit system in which the more you deliver, the more freedom you earn. To be blunt—no matter what the official company policy, bosses see flextime as a reward for outstanding performance. They don't particularly like giving it to average players, and they loathe giving it to the barely-hanging-in-theres.
A few days later, a young male writer with about nine unimpressive months on the staff paid me a visit. He wanted the same deal as the pregnant writer, he said, to perfect his yoga practice.
"It's not the same thing," I told him. "Yes, it is," he snapped in reply. "You're just making a value judgment that raising children is more meaningful than yoga."
Caught off guard, I asked for time to consider the matter. Looking back, I wish that I had said exactly what I was thinking, which was, "This is not about values, it's about performance." (He left the company to write a novel shortly thereafter, rendering his point moot.)
Third, bosses wish that employees knew that flextime programs described in the company brochure are mainly for recruiting purposes. Real flextime arrangements are negotiated one-on-one.
One senior executive in Miami told us about employees who approach flextime like "little technocrats," banking vacation days, handing in slips of paper noting half days worked, and meticulously keeping track of overtime. Their attitude, she said, is so legalistic it's almost adversarial. She described a flextime employee who left one Friday at noon, in accordance with the company's policy of "short weeks in the summer." Meanwhile a deadline loomed and the rest of the staff was hammering away in "war room" mode.
"I never really forgave her," the boss said. "She showed that she didn't care about the business or any of us."
Fourth, bosses wish that employees knew that flextime means you still may have to miss your child's Christmas play. Flextime does not make work-life conflicts go away. It only helps people navigate them better. This point was never clearer to me than the day I waited for a manuscript to arrive via e-mail from a flextime employee. Finally, I called her cell phone, and as she answered, I could hear children playing close by.
"Where are you?" I practically cried.
"The beach," she answered sheepishly. "With this weather, I couldn't resist."
"But what about the manuscript?"
Long pause: "Oh yeah."
"Are you mad? I planned to do it later."
Mad? Of course I was! The employee was a strong performer, but she was gaming the system. Immediately, I thought of the people who would end up paying for it—coworkers who would have to stay late, and yours truly, who would miss dinner with the kids to oversee the process.
I knew this employee was juggling a lot—work, kids, husband, life. I'd been there; I was still there. But as a boss, I had come to realize the larger implications of flextime. I attempted to explain this to her on the phone. "You do realize," I said, "that this is not okay, right?"
"I know, I know," she insisted.
But did she? Did she understand that employees who take advantage of flextime cannot also take advantage of the people around and above them who make her schedule possible? Did she understand that employees who reap the benefits of flextime must also never forget to treat it like the godsend it is, with a bit of awe and a lot of respect? I sure hoped so.
That day made me realize that I had to find a new approach to flextime. I would continue to tell my employees that I supported the policy. But it was also my job to raise the delicate topic of its connection to performance, not to mention my own priority, the company's results. I needed to let my employees know what I'd learned: that flextime was great for them but much less so for me, or any other boss.
Most managers will never give you that message. Still they wish—really wish—you would hear it anyway.
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