Invisible employees

”I’m upstairs now and I’m making an important phone call,” Lisa Kay tells her 3-, 5-, and 7-year-old daughters. ”Everybody be quiet, OK?”

Amazingly, not a peep is heard downstairs.

”They’re usually good,” she says over the phone. ”They don’t make too much noise.”

When she’s not taking her daughters to school or to the babysitter, Kay spends a few hours compiling a target list of manufacturing firms for partners at her accounting firm, Plante & Moran LLP. After her children are tucked in, she types in a few database searches for new clients that fit her market.

Kay is one of a growing population of employees nationwide on a Flexible Work Arrangement. She works 30 hours a week, with only three days a week spent at Plante & Moran’s Cleveland office, formerly Clifton Gunderson LLP.

”I wanted to feel like I was spending more time with my children than at work,” Kay says. ”Even though I’m working when I’m home, four days with family and three days at work, it’s been a nice balance.”

A slim majority of firms in Northeast Ohio offer flex time arrangements for employees, according to this year’s Workplace Practices survey from the Employers Resource Council and SBN Magazine. But that’s an increase over last year, when 51 percent of employers did not offer any alternative schedule opportunities.

Ahead of the curve

Plante & Moran launched its flexible schedule program in 1986, several years before working parent issues were in vogue. The Parental Tightrope Action Committee was formed; the name was later changed to the Personal Tightrope Action Committee to include employees whose need for an alternative schedule wasn’t family-driven.

”It’s about staying on top of that tightrope and not falling to one side or the other, whether it be family or work,” says Pam Schell, human resources manager for Plante & Moran in Ohio. ” We don’t want people to get out of balance with those two issues in their life. It’s a logical conclusion from that to offer work schedules tailored to their personal needs, but also keeping in mind the needs of our clients.”

Kay, who was a full-time office worker for another company before she started her family, says the transition to working at home requires discipline and determination on the employee’s part. That may include a change in your office persona.

”You have to be so productive when you’re in the office (part-time),” Kay says. ”I don’t waste time gabbing with other people. When somebody comes to my office to gab, I always say, ‘I have a few things to get done here.”’

The right tools

Technology is key to getting work done at home and to bridge the gap to the office. Kay, a marketing consultant, keeps in touch mostly via e-mail. She saves most of her important business calls for the days she’s in the office, although she frequently checks her office voice mail for messages.

Plante & Moran also bought her a laptop computer and a subscription to a Dun & Bradstreet business database to help with her market research at home.

According to its recruiting literature, since Plante & Moran started the alternative schedule program, employee retention has increased and the turnover rate is less than half than that of its peers.

Whatever it takes

It’s not always obvious which employees should be allowed to work from home. Often, it falls on the employer to decide which situations deserve a nontraditional work schedule, outside of a manager’s watchful eye.

Tina Cancian, human resources manager for Ernst & Young LLP in the Lake Erie region, was faced with just such a dilemma. A prized employee asked for a reduction in hours so she could begin the process of adopting two children from Bulgaria. The preadoption bureaucracy, which included two trips to the country, required a huge time commitment. This request was a first for Cancian.

”The firm was very supportive of that,” Cancian says. ”She’s a terrific employee that we didn’t want to lose. The timing was very good in that we had a project management position available that would be more accommodating to a flexible schedule, so she shifted nicely into that role.”

Ernst & Young’s Flexible Work Arrangement program had been around for a several years, but wasn’t formalized until the mid-1990s. The firm has arrangements with employees so they can care for elderly parents or pursue educational degrees. One employee, says Cancian, simply wanted more balance in his life.

”We’ve really taken the position where we don’t want to be evaluating or judging the reason,” Cancian says. ”Whatever the reason, it’s obviously important to the person, and from a retention standpoint, it’s something that we really want to try and accommodate.”

The financial services job market is usually tight, regardless of economic conditions. And competition for people among the Big Five is high, Cancian says. To attract and retain the best people, E&Y needed to bring its flexible work opportunities to the forefront.

”We’ve found our FWA people have an enhanced commitment and high morale,” Cancian says. ”They are usually more efficient with their time, project management communication and all those things that are so key to making it successful.”

How to reach: Plante & Moran LLP, (216) 523-1010; Ernst & Young LLP, (216) 861-5000

Morgan Lewis Jr. ([email protected]) is a senior reporter at SBN Magazine.