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Time for Flexitime: Some call it ‘homework’. Professionals who want to maintain a work-life balance are negotiating flexitime assignments--in some cases, for a price.

Are you a good worker only if you are in office from 9 to 5? Well, so are government employees at their seats during these times, and nobody can honestly accuse them of being dedicated employees. That old-fashioned concept of the "loyal company worker" who gives all his waking hours to his job is just that: old-fashioned. In an era when people talk of McDonaldised careers– you take on a low-end ‘McJob’, make money, quit to spend it, then get back to earn some more–people want to do more with their lives than sit in a cubicle and work long hours.So, if you want to travel to the Himalayas two months a year, or have a baby and be a stay-at-home dad, or do a year’s research on the mating habits of deep-sea tuna, it’s time you seriously looked at how you can make flexitime work for you.

Everybody was sure the new economy would usher out the 9-to-5 drudge but the truth is if you’re actively looking for a job or company today that will unconditionally offer you flexi hours, you might have to search long and hard.

Not so many. Companies who openly announce flexitime policies are few and far between. Most of them, even if open to the idea in a limited way, are afraid that announcing it might deluge them with employee demands. As Sabitha Rao, director and head of Cerebrus Consultants’ southern operations, says: "Flexi time is not yet HR policy at the majority of companies; it is a practice followed mostly on a case-by-case basis."

The good news is the number is growing, as companies realise they can retain excellent talent if they are less rigid. "Right now, it’s in the conceptual stage, but in about three-five years, it is bound to pick up," says Daniel Jebasingh, director-HR, Ajuba Solutions.

Companies are beginning to see that it is possible to grant flexitime in a number of ways, each letting the employee optimise his contribution while retaining enough personal time (See Sideshow ‘Find a Way...’). Says Jyothi Menon, HR head, Lason India: "Flexitime is granted for child or parent care, health, or education programmes." But companies like Sasken in Bangalore go further, with clearly defined sabbatical policies for refresher courses or simply rejuvenation. In Delhi-based consultancy service Grow Talent, Kanti Gopal, an associate, works four days a week and takes the fifth day off for community service. Other employees work 20 days a month and volunteer the extra days with an NGO.

GlaxoSmithKline, which featured in a Hewitt Best Employer study, allows compressed workweeks and provides staff with laptops. Anil Sachdev, director, Grow Talent, points out: "When I worked at Eicher, a secretary’s post was filled by two people–one who worked from 9 to 2, and the other from 2 to 7." Grow Talent itself provides staff with Net connectivity and laptops at home.

Who hires flexitime. Typically, companies in software development, knowledge management, HR training and recruiting, research, R&D, or website and graphic design are less rigid. At Team Lease, an HR consultancy, several employees work from home and send in reports at the end of each day. At Empower Research, Team Lease placed a research head who works from home. At Lason India, a Chennai-based non-voice BPO that works across healthcare, e-publication, and legal areas, flexitime is a way of life. Says Pradeep Nevatia, MD: "I believe I must give space to people if I want them to give their best." Nevatia attributes his company’s low attrition rate, 9-10 per cent compared to an industry average of about 30 per cent, to his company policy.

There are certain roles that lend themselves more easily to flexitime. Jobs in the legal, business analysis, strategy, or taxation departments are more likely to allow you to change timings than jobs in the marketing, secretarial or production departments. It’s easier for managerial/ supervisory levels to work flexi rather than someone lower down.

Career impact. Working flexi does not mean leniency. Says Gautam Sinha, CEO, placement consultancy TVA Infotech: "Work evaluation is purely on deliverables that are completely quantifiable. In fact, evaluation criteria become more strict because soft factors sometimes used to judge a person (team interaction, networking skills etc.) go right out."

 

CHITRA CHAR, 37
Software engineer

In her 14-year career, she has spent seven years as a work-from-home employee in the US. After relocating to India four months ago, Char continues to work from home for the same US-based software company.
"I chose flexitime after my son was born. My salary hikes keep pace with my colleagues’, though my health cover and PF benefits have ceased. Small price for the flexibility this arrangement offers."


Unfortunately, in the majority of companies, flexitime still means having to take a cut in salary, even if, paradoxically, you end up working longer hours. Career growth suffers too. Says Sinha: "For leadership positions, companies prefer people without this constraint." Nalina Suresh is a HR practice leader in Mumbai. She can’t take on the next level as head of location because it’s not open to flexitime. Now, she works 75 per cent of the days her colleagues do, does not travel or do late hours, and her salary takes a commensurate dip by about 40 per cent. Those with highly specialised skills could perhaps take home the same money, but cannot grow in terms of role expansion or designation.

Of course, this is a pay-off people are willing to take. Software engineer Chitra Char, who works for a US-based company from home, will never get to lead a team as she works away from the workplace, but the improvement in her quality of life makes the deal worthwhile.

Flexitime also fills a vital role as stopgap. Says Nirupama V.G., Executive vice-president, Team Lease: "It allows you to stay in touch. When you want to get back to a full-time career, it’s far easier to come back from here than to not have done any work at all."

Negotiate. Even if you are looking at a company that does not have a categorically laid-down flexitime policy, you can work out a deal for yourself, especially if you have a skill they want. A customer support executive with an insurance company, who needed to be home early, worked out an arrangement whereby she worked for her company as an after-hours answering service.

 In such cases, be prepared to take a salary hit of about 30-50 per cent, but fight your case if you are putting in extra ‘homework’ hours. If your targets and deliverables remain the same, you can and should resist a major salary cut, although a 10 per cent reduction might be inevitable.

And when companies claim flexitime, ask what it translates into on the ground. At some places, it might mean you end up working longer hours; others might promise flexi but insist you be in office during ‘core hours’, which just may be 10 to 6!

Considering that the Internet, e-mail, and WAP have redefined ‘workplace’, it’s surprising that only a handful of employers have discovered flexitime. But it’s a revolution waiting to happen. As Nevatia says: "This is the way organisations of the future are going to work."