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Toward a More Flexible Workplace

Is the American way of working about to become more flexible?

Yes, say a number of sources I interviewed for PayScale's May feature story on women re-entering the workforce after time off. When baby boomers retire or shift careers, they'll leave behind a knowledge and skills gap that could partialy be filled by moms heading back to work. Those moms will want greater flexibilty, experts say, such as part-time work, flextime and working from home.

But it'll be more than just employees with family responsibilities that trigger a more flexible workplace.

Others sources have said baby boomers, along with Generations X and Y, will demand more malleable working environments. After a lifetime of working well more than 40 hour workweeks, baby boomers are seeking jobs with more flexibility, while Generations X and Y aren't looking to spend days, nights and weekends at the office. Meanwhile, technology often enables younger generations to be more efficient and get work done more quickly than baby boomers did when they were the same age.

New York Times Coverage

A recent New York Times article delves into the issue of workplace flexibility:

This growing demand for balance, or what I prefer to call sanity, is also leading businesses to accept that some employees will leave no matter how much flexibility exists, and that it is better to keep the door open for their return, rather than slamming it tight.

That is the thinking behind the adjunct program at Booz Allen Hamilton, where employees are invited to keep their hand in even after they quit. About 100 workers have signed on for the two-year-old program, and several have moved back to full time, which is the eventual point. Lehman Brothers has a similar program, called Encore, which recruits workers who have left the workplace for as long as three years.

Robin Scheman is one of them. After 12 years in investment banking, she quit in 2002, when her children were 10 and 6. ''I was burned out,'' she says. She spent three and a half years at home and was beginning to think about the road to re-entry when she was invited to an Encore luncheon. Intrigued by Lehman's stated determination to recruit seasoned women, Ms. Scheman went through 14 job interviews at the company searching for a good fit. At each meeting she repeated ''that they should not even show me jobs that require more than a three- or four-day week,'' she says. ''They made it clear that would not be a problem.''

For the last year Ms. Scheman has been the director of training for investment banking at Lehman, working a three-day week. She is struck by how many younger women today are upfront about balance in their lives. ''When I was coming in, in the 1980s, you wouldn't mention the idea of cutting back on work,'' she says. ''In the 1990s, maybe you would whisper. Now they just say it directly.''

A Work in Progress

Whatever might lead to greater flexibility, it probably won't take widespread hold overnight, nor will every industry and employer embrace it. Safeguards also need to be in place, so that more flexible policies aren't abused by employees.

Still, many driven, productive American workers could be more productive with flexible set-ups, as well as more content and loyal to their employers.

Would you be happier with your current job if it offered greater flexibility?

-kc

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