January 30, 2009 / 6:17 AM / 9 years ago

Flexible work arrangements ride economic tides

<p>A woman works at her desk in this February 9, 2005 photo.Catherine Benson</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tatiana Carvajal has a new job at a telecommunications company that lets her work from home, a benefit she says lured her to leave her former position, despite fewer bonuses and raises.

"It's really nice. It was one of the things that attracted me to it and made me decide to make that change," said the mother of two who lives in Plaistow, New Hampshire.

While flexible work arrangements are nothing new, in tough economic times some companies use telecommuting or job sharing to attract, keep and encourage employees, experts say.

"Companies who can't say you're doing a great job, here's a 200 percent bonus this year, who are having to say there is no bonus this year or you might have to take a pay cut, can now look at this as another way to reward workers, get executives to stay," said Claire Shipman, co-author of "Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success," due out in June.

As companies grapple with strained budgets, tight credit, waning demand for products and layoffs, flexible arrangements are still available but it is hard to measure how many companies offer them, said Katherine Spencer Lee, a district president for Robert Half International, which provides companies with temporary and full-time staffing.

Flexibility can mean letting workers shift hours once in a while, offering choices to only a few employees or working entirely from home, Lee said.

Even so, she said, "we are seeing about the same amount of telecommuting and flexible schedules. If companies are pinched for cash, they may try to do things less cash-oriented. Certainly flexible schedules would fit into that category."

The practice of flexible scheduling more than doubled from 1985 through the 1990s, but has not grown in the past decade, according to the Public Policy Institute of the AARP, a nonprofit organization designed to help people over age 50.

FLEXIBLE SCHEDULES UNCOMMON IN UNITED STATES

Fewer than a third of U.S. workers have flexible work schedules, AARP said. When it comes to telecommuting, the number drops to just 3 percent of U.S. workers, it said.

Employees worried about their jobs tend to be reluctant to seek out such arrangements, said Ellen Galinsky of the Family Work Institute.

"What I'm hearing is that people are more afraid to ask for it," she said. "I hear from companies, even those who want to promote flexibility, the employees are a little bit more nervous about it."

Yet this may be the best time to ask, said Shipman, a television reporter who recently altered her work arrangement.

"In a good economic times, the stodgy companies looked at it as nutty, crunchy, candle-lighting, feel-good stuff that was a pain and they wanted no part of it," she said.

"But in bad economic times, even the stodgy companies are forced to get creative. Companies are going to have to start looking at everything they can to keep morale high."

Studies show employees in flexible workplaces are more satisfied and engaged on the job, advocates say.

At MWW Group, a public relations firm in New Jersey, founder Michael Kempner said he gets the most value in hard times from offering his 250 employees flexible schedules, short work weeks and "No Drive Workdays."

"There are advantages in a robust economy, and there are huge advantages in a down economy," Kempner said.

"You want to keep your people, and you want to keep them motivated when all around them their friends are being laid off," he said. "A lot of companies are in danger of their employees walking around with their heads down all day and not doing their jobs because it's a very frightening environment."

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Stacey Joyce

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