November 15, 2004 4:00 AM PST

At tech firms, time again for flextime?

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Brad Short comes up with key design ideas for Hewlett-Packard printers from a lounge chair in his backyard.

And if he's feeling uninspired, he doesn't hesitate to stop working for a spell. He'll return to his duties later. "Not everyone can be innovative in a very structured, 9-to-5 type office environment," said Short, a lead mechanical-design engineer in HP's printer group. At home, "you stop watching the clock," Short explained. "It now becomes more of a focus on getting the task done."

Short isn't alone in having an unconventional work arrangement. In the wake of the dot-com crash, some technology companies clamped down on telecommuting options. But thanks to better technology, employee desires and a focus on results, a number of firms in the industry are giving more workers flexibility in the way they do their jobs.

News.context

What's new:
Tech companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Network Appliance are giving employees more options about when and where they work.

Bottom line:
Despite some hurdles, job-sharing, flextime and telecommuting are helping some workers improve their productivity while spending more time with their families.

More stories on this topic

Telecommuting, flextime and the like are good for both employers and workers when set up properly, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. These sorts of arrangements are maturing from a mere carrot used to hire workers to a fundamental way of doing business in a global, demanding economy, she said. "Providing flexibility isn't a perk," Galinsky said. "Flexible work (options) are part of effective companies."

Practices such as telecommuting and working flexible hours have been around for decades. But they became more pronounced in the late 1990s, as the Internet and e-mail made remote work more feasible. In addition, technology companies eager to snap up talent during the dot-com rush gave employees a lot of latitude when it came to work. Remember stories of people bringing pets to work?

But after the Internet bubble burst, some companies reviewed their workplace rules as the business world refocused on financial results. Some technology companies decided to restrict their telecommuting policies earlier this decade, said Jack Nilles, president of JALA International, a consulting firm focused on telecommuting. "Strangely, tech companies sometimes are more conservative in this respect," he said.

Such companies are missing out, Nilles argues. Telecommuting increases workers' average productivity by 5 percent to 20 percent, he said. "Most offices are dysfunctional," Nilles said. "Interruptions are unbelievable."

Galinsky said some businesses had poorly designed "loosey-goosey" workplace policies in the late 1990s. Her institute has found that creating flexible guidelines that make sense for both employer and employee works best. Done well, it pays off for both sides: Research from the institute has found that employees with flexibility are more engaged in their jobs and committed to helping their companies succeed, more likely to plan on staying with their employer and more satisfied with their jobs.

One reason flexible workplaces are becoming more common: Businesses are focusing more on whether and how well work gets done, not just when and where it gets done, Galinsky said. In addition, employees are calling for new work arrangements as they spend more time overall on the job.

Given these factors, companies are becoming more flexible. For example, the number of people who work away from the office at least one day every couple of weeks is just less than 30 million this year, up about 10 percent from last year, Nilles estimated.

Companies in the technology arena are among those providing flexible workplaces. Diane Berry, a vice president at technology researcher Gartner, allows one of her subordinates to work unusual hours. "She may come in at 10, leave at 4, and then work from 7 to midnight at home," Berry said.

Data storage equipment specialist Network Appliance lets Katy Mann and Pamela Sotnick share a sales position. Mann works Mondays and Tuesdays, Sotnick works Thursdays and Fridays, and they alternate Wednesdays.


Katy Mann (left) joined Network Appliance as a
unit with Pamela Sotnick (right). Together, the
job-sharing duo last year ranked first in sales
in the Americas.

The two women began sharing a job at Cisco Systems in 2000 and came to NetApp as a unit about two and a half years ago. NetApp had never hired a job-sharing sales team before Mann and Sotnick, but the duo has erased any doubts: They ranked first in sales in the Americas last year and sold more than $24 million in NetApp gear last quarter.

Both women wanted reduced hours on the job so they could spend more time raising their young children. And they find that their odd setup--which includes a single phone number, a single e-mail address and a dual-sided business card--gives them a head start in landing deals.

 

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