November 15, 2004 4:00 AM PST

At tech firms, time again for flextime?

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Their potential customers in the federal-government sector are intrigued, Sotnick said. "It gets the personal relationship going right away."

Bending the rules
IBM has a variety of flexible work programs, including flextime, telecommuting and compressed workweeks. And the share of Big Blue employees working in nontraditional settings is growing. In 2001, about a third of IBMers worked outside the office at least some of the time. That figure has climbed to 42 percent, said Maria Ferris, manager of work/life and women's initiatives at IBM.

Ferris is a case in point. Her official workplace is her home in Raleigh, N.C. From there, she manages a team of workers scattered across the United States and collaborates with counterparts in other countries. "The global reach of our jobs has had an impact on how we work," she said.


Flexible work arrangements have helped
Kristy Ward, a marketing manager at
Hewlett-Packard, spend more time with her
husband and three children. "I think I'm
more productive, because I'm so aware I'm
not (in the office) all the time," she said.

HP says an increasing number of its employees are taking advantage of flexible work programs. But HP marketing manager Kristy Ward is a veteran when it comes to unconventional arrangements. Ward began sharing a marketing job with another HP employee in 1990, and for 10 years she worked Wednesday through Friday while her job-sharing partner worked Monday through Wednesday. Later, she shared her job with another partner for eight months. Ward now works a part-time schedule of about 30 hours a week on partner marketing relationships.

A desire to spend more time with her three kids--now 11, 12 and 14--spurred Ward to seek these arrangements. But she said her family focus has not distracted her from work responsibilities. "I think I'm more productive, because I'm so aware I'm not here all the time," she said. "I tend to be more heads down."

The way telecommuting lends itself to concentration is crucial for HP's Short. About eight years ago, he covered the entrance to his office cubicle with cardboard to help him focus on a project. That seemed to some colleagues to rub against HP's "open door" culture, and it helped convince Short to push for a work-at-home arrangement. "It kind of evolved out of desperation to meet some of the deadlines and not be distracted," he said.

Short is now as likely to work at home as he is at his designated HP office in San Diego. Technology has made this arrangement easier over time: The design software he uses once required a bulky workstation computer, but it can now fit on his laptop.

Flexible-workplace hurdles
Still, he sees room for improvement when it comes to virtual-workplace tools. For example, Short communicates with HP workers in Singapore but says videoconferencing isn't yet ideal. Low-resolution video with slow frame rates--apparently due to limited Internet bandwidth--has made videoconferences difficult to use effectively for tasks that require attention to detail, he said. "We have tried to use (videoconferencing technology) now and then, but it is still plagued by some glitches."


Brad Short once covered the entrance to
his office cubicle with cardboard to focus
on a design project. He's now as likely to
work at home as he is at his designated
Hewlett-Packard office in San Diego.

Other challenges stand in the way of flexible working arrangements. They include ensuring that company data isn't at risk when employees work from home, convincing managers to supervise based on results rather than seat time and making remote employees feel connected. People working in their homes can get alienated, IBM's Ferris said. "Employees want to feel a part of the team," she said.

Successful job-sharing requires a good deal of trust and much communication, Ward said. She and a partner supervised other HP employees, who occasionally tried to play one manager against the other. "You get tested sometimes," Ward explained. "If we had given conflicting responses to an employee, that would have been terrible."

Nilles suggests that companies create ways to quantify the performance of telecommuting workers. Fewer than 5 percent of telecommuters "fit their manager's worst fear--they do go to the beach or play golf," he said. There is probably a higher percentage of office loafers, who have learned to look busy, Nilles said.

Gartner's Berry recommends that companies offer flexible work rules as a way to hold on to employees during what she sees as a coming shortage of technology talent.

It's debatable whether a labor crunch is on the horizon. But there's general agreement that flexibility--when done right--works.

Ward, for one, says she's become more loyal to HP because of its willingness to accommodate her parenting goals. And she suggests that companies can win the hearts of people beyond their direct employees with workplace flexibility. "When my kids were little, it was great to be home those two days a week," she said. "My kids love HP for giving me that opportunity."

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