By: Mckay Coppins
How the recession is accelerating a cultural shift in the corporate world toward more flexible workdays.
On a typical weekday, Jennifer Folsom works from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to about 8 p.m. Her hours may sound like they belong to a college student cobbling together a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, but Folsom is the director of a successful D.C. headhunting firm where she oversees a handful of employees with equally irregular schedules. “We get the job done and I work 50 or 60 hours a week,” says Folsom, who adapts her work schedule to give herself time with her three sons. “I just don’t necessarily do it from 9 to 5.”
As the traditional U.S. workday continues to fade, Folsom’s experience may soon become the rule rather than the exception. Two generations ago, America’s workforce—from Ford’s assembly-line workers to IBM’s “company men”—would show up to work at 9 a.m. on the dot and leave the second the whistle blew at 5 o’clock. Now, one in five Americans works mostly nonstandard hours—nights, weekends, or rotating shifts. Experts believe that statistic will balloon in coming years as the Great Recession accelerates a cultural shift in the corporate world, allowing more employees to tailor their work schedules to preference, position, and personal life.
Folsom has seen this firsthand. Her company, Momentum Resources, is designed to place professionals in senior-level positions with flexible hours. When she helped start the firm in 2007, her biggest challenge was convincing CEOs that their stringent loyalty to the 9-to-5 workday was impeding them from acquiring top talent, specifically working mothers with impressive résumés. “They just weren’t set up to do it,” she says. But the model has proven remarkably successful at companies like Best Buy and employers seem more willing to adapt these days: since 2007, Momentum has placed flex employees with more than 250 clients in the D.C. metro area, and Folsom says demand is growing.
Jennifer Swanberg, a professor at University of Kentucky’s Institute for Workplace Innovation, has studied the flex work model extensively and says the trend will continue to grow, especially as the U.S. economy becomes less reliant on manufacturing and more dependent on so-called knowledge-based industries (law, marketing, finance, etc.). An assembly line doesn’t work unless everyone’s there at the same time, but a programmer can write code just as easily at two in the morning as he can in the afternoon, surrounded by co-workers.
Other long-term factors are contributing to the trend as well—the globalization of the economy, for instance, is making “quitting time” an increasingly relative term—but Swanberg says the most immediate force driving the shift toward flex schedules is the recession. Beleaguered companies looking to staff management positions on tight budgets are finding that forsaking 9-to-5 may be the key. Many of the companies Momentum has worked with are finding qualified managers who are only willing to work part-time if they are allowed flexible hours.
Folsom says the results have been overwhelmingly positive. As she puts it, “I don’t think you’ll see anyone more efficient than a working mother who needs to be at daycare pickup at 5 p.m.” From a productivity standpoint, the benefits are clear, says Swanberg: employees who have some power over their work schedules are typically more engaged in their jobs and less likely to have conflicts with co-workers, whether they’re in blue-collar or white-collar industries.
One of the movement’s success stories is Karen Coltrane. Six years ago, the Children’s Museum of Richmond, Va., offered her an administrative job. A successful businesswoman, she was tempted to take it, but the museum couldn’t afford to pay her a matching salary. She told the CEO she would gladly take a 20 percent pay cut if she could take Fridays off to spend with her family. He was reluctant at first but agreed.
When Coltrane eventually became president and CEO of the museum, she trimmed the staff and replaced many of the traditionalists with motivated professionals who were free to develop their own schedules. Within six years, the museum has turned a $600,000 operating loss into a surplus, and it has become the first children’s museum in the country to open a second location (in the suburbs of Richmond).
There is, of course, a significant caveat here. Aboud Yaqub, who worked as a management consultant for 10 years at Monitor Co. in Boston, says only a certain type of individual thrives in this environment. “For someone who’s a type-A go-getter who’s really focused on their career, meeting deadlines, delivering on commitments; all this stuff is part and parcel for what they do,” Yaqub says. “You kind of have to earn the right to be able to do this.”
Yaqub now works as a vice president at Upromise, a Boston-based subsidiary of Sallie Mae that administers a college-savings rewards program, where one of his staffers regularly works nontraditional hours.
He says the arrangement has worked well but that he’s not sure it could be implemented on a companywide basis. “It does require the manager to follow up on things more frequently,” he says. “If all my employees maintained the same [untraditional] schedule, then it would become a little untenable.”