Learning How to Have It All

In lean times, flexible employers are a godsend.

Co-workers are getting laid off. More work is being done by fewer IT staffers. Stress is mounting. Its one hell of a time to have a baby.

But thats exactly what happened when Kim Pendergrass gave birth to her son, Jaden, in June, four years after joining DPR Construction Inc., a commercial contractor based in Redwood City, Calif. Prior to her sons birth, Pendergrass was a typical IT overachiever. A development manager at DPR, Pendergrass put in 65-hour work weeks managing a team and writing reports for the companys back-end accounting system.

Pendergrass knew shed have to scale back but didnt want to leave the company. And given how companies are desperately cutting costs, how does an ITer broach the subject of working less without running the risk of getting axed? Luckily for Pendergrass, she works for a flexible employer who accommodated her needs. Indeed, DPR is one of the growing number of employers mindful of the need to retain their best employees and so are letting employees scale back to keep them from leaving.

The staffers who ask their bosses if they can reshuffle their jobs to buy a little peace of mind are taking a risk, analysts said. But its a risk theyre willing to take. "You wont get someone walking in and saying, Pay me for five days, and Ill work three," said Tom Casey, a partner at Unifi Network, a human resources consulting subsidiary of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Employees know the economy is slower and cutbacks are common, so theyre not making pie-in-the-sky requests. "Usually they say they need to throttle back," said Casey, in Boston.

As for Pendergrass, she brought her relief plans to Les Fondy, CIO and head of IT at DPR. Fondy listened. "Retaining people and keeping employees happy is a real goal," Fondy said. He has heard proposals from employees who need to step back because of stress, a family situation, a hellish commute, a staggering workload or just because theyve lost almost all semblance of having a life outside of work. Valuable employees would absolutely have left DPR, he said, if they werent allowed to scale back their jobs.

"Ill fall for almost anything to see if it works out," Fondy said. "But I expect results, and I expect people to be grown-ups. I measure and monitor how well the situations are going. And if its not working out, well reorganize."

Three weeks after learning that Pendergrass wanted to nurse her baby on the job, the company installed frosted windows and door locks on some of its small conference rooms to accommodate working mothers. Now, new mothers get privacy—and a data-port connection—for an hour or two a day.

Pendergrass is back at work, spending three days in the office with more- flexible hours and two days working from her Hayward, Calif., home. Shes connected with a digital subscriber line, a laptop and a server. "Ive had frustrating days, frustrating weeks, but I always come out of it thinking that this is where Im supposed to be," she said.

Of course, you cant let every stressed-out staffer scale back—after all, the work still has to get done. But you dont want to risk a defection among your most talented folks because the demands on their time and lives are too great.

DPR doesnt have a formal downshifting policy because it wont work for everyone. Instead, on a case-by-case basis, the company will do whatever it takes to keep good people, whether thats allowing them to work remotely or to work fewer or different hours.

Fondy has about 50 IT staffers at 20 sites. One person in the infrastructure group came to him for help. The person worked 60 to 70 hours a week away from home, monitoring systems at all hours from the West to East coasts. DPR approved more-flexible hours, with upward of 30 percent of the work done from home. The company also provided training in time management.

But downshifting is not without risk, said John Drake, a workplace consultant and the author of "Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy Life More." Co-workers might think downshifting employees are not fully committed to their jobs. In addition, their diminished visibility could mean fewer promotions. "What youre doing is trading money for time," said Drake, in Kennebunkport, Maine.

What are the signs that should prevent ITers from attempting to cut back? If your companys IT department never takes a break, if its bursting with profits, or if a first round of layoffs has already been announced, dont ask to cut back hours. Youd probably downshift yourself right out of a job.