The Future is Flexible

News, Summer 2016

Unconventional work formats and schedules help women find work-life harmony

BY SARAH WENGERT
PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN

The workplace has evolved in many ways since Dolly Parton drummed her acrylic fingernails together to mimic a typewriter’s clickety-clack in her 1980 song “9 to 5.” For example, the titular office hours structure of her ditty, while still essentially a workplace norm for many American women, is increasingly not the only option for many a Dolly, Lily and Jane.

When conventional business hours obstruct them from taking care of professional and personal business, many women seek unconventional work schedules and structures as a strategy to manage competing demands. Job sharing, flex and nonstandard schedules—including part-time, freelance and remote work—are among solutions workers are embracing in an effort to lead fuller lives both on and off the job. In light of cost-savings, increased productivity and the desire to recruit top talent, many progressive businesses are on board, too. So, like a melting Salvador Dali pocket watch, traditional workplace schedules and formats are reshaping before our eyes.

“There are several reasons the workplace is trending away from traditional 8 to 5 schedules and on-site workers,” says Samantha Ammons, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, whose research “investigates how work intersects with family and leisure.”

“To be competitive and have the best workers, companies often must break away from the 8 to 5 and consider a 24/7 model instead,” says Ammons, citing issues such as globalization and operating costs as additional motivating factors. “While business needs are the main driver of flexible scheduling options, we also see workers pushing for flexibility. They may need to take care of the health needs of themselves or loved ones, want to reduce their daily commute time, work during a time that aligns better with their sleep habits, or simply want to fit in time for hobbies and interests.”

Ammons notes that this shift is occurring “against the backdrop of a changing employment contract.” She says this new contract includes a rise individual-earner households; employees who are more likely to job-hop in search of better compensation, benefits and more meaningful work; and “companies that are on a never-ending quest to recruit top talent, downsize their workforce and flatten their hierarchies.”

“In this context, flexibility becomes something that both sides want,” Ammons says.

According to research from the Families and Work Institute (FWI), more than two-thirds of employees say their work leaves them without sufficient time for themselves, their spouse or their children—with low-wage employees feeling the most time-starved. But employees with greater work flexibility were found more likely to say they did have enough time for self and family. FWI research also indicates that employees with a high degree of “work-life fit”—defined as “having the support, schedule and flexibility to effectively manage work and personal/family responsibilities”—are more highly engaged at work, more likely to stay in their jobs, and describe themselves as healthier than their counterparts with a low work-life fit.

Plus, 97 percent of HR professionals reported that productivity was the same or better with flexible work arrangements.

Abby Skradski, loan operations analyst at First National Bank of Omaha, works three 10-hour days weekly—a nonstandard part-time work arrangement t
hat allows her better work-life harmony.

“In 2009, I was six months pregnant with my first son and decided I wanted to step back from a leadership role on my team as I stepped into my new role of motherhood,” says Skradski, now mother to two boys. “I devised and presented a plan to my manager, explaining how my hours would still support our team during peak volumes while opening up opportunities for other experienced team members to grow in their positions. After just a few changes, [my plan] was accepted and I was able to come back to work as a part-timer at the end of my maternity leave.”

Since then, Skradski has moved between roles and teams within the organization, which she praises for its flexibility and sincere investment in employees. After 12 years at First National, Skradski says it feels like a family, with colleagues and management that consistently support her personal and professional endeavors. To her, achieving work-life harmony means “finding that sweet spot” where she can give her best to her children and her work.

“My current schedule helps me leave home at home and work at work,” Skradski says. “On my work days, I’m 100 percent engaged in finding solutions for my team and getting the job done. I develop efficient processes and identify patterns in issues that our teams are facing. On stay home days, I am 100 percent engaged in teaching, playing and experiencing life with my boys and living life with them on our terms. If I worked 40-plus hours per week, both would suffer. My career at First National would not be as focused and engaged, and my boys would be experiencing life on someone else’s terms. I’d suffer from both work and mom guilt. I literally get the best of both worlds and feel so lucky to be able to do it all on my family’s terms.”

While many working women struggle to make time for family in the face of work demands, Kate Bodmann, clinical herbalist at Land of Milk and Honey Herbs, initially launched her career as a way to make time for creative pursuits despite her 24/7 work as a stay-at-home mom. Now, Bodmann’s unconventional schedule balances homeschooling her children with seeing clients.

“Work-life harmony for me is making sure that I take care of my clients’ needs, that I support my children, and that I’m doing it all in such a way that I feel the value of what I’m providing to everyone, while also being able to enjoy my life,” says Bodmann, an Army veteran and former translator with experience in the nonprofit world. “Largely, it’s finding a schedule that works for my kids, my clients and myself.”

In her practice, Bodmann helps support her clients’ overall and work-life balance with the recommendation of adaptogenic herbs (which bolster the body against psychological, physical and environmental stress), proper diet, and self-care rituals.

“These tactics feed into each other, creating a positive cycle, whereas oftentimes people are kind of in a negative cycle—things are falling apart and they’re just bandaging one crisis after another,” Bodmann says. “Most people know instinctively when they’re coming out of balance, and kickstarting that positive cycle helps people get back on track.”
Despite her expertise, Bodmann is quick to point out that she doesn’t have it all figured out all the time, and that her unconventional schedule is greatly aided by the support of her husband, Dan, and a network of friends.

“I can’t say that I manage to be [in perfect balance] all the time, but half the battle is knowing where you want to guide your ship. With that knowledge, you’re more likely to end up where you want to be,” she says.

Bodmann’s focus is on doing great work and being able to help clients find hope and healing, while also maintaining freedom and boundaries.

“The way I’ve set up my life, I’m completely in control of my schedule,” she says. “I decide my hours, how far I’m willing to push, what I need to do for my children and what I don’t … so, I don’t feel a lot of external pressure. There’s some, but I’m completely confident setting my boundaries, and I’m the creator of my own life.”

Daphne Eck_article

Daphne Eck, writer and brand strategist, enjoys the flexibility of her career as a freelancer, as it allows her freedom to travel, connect with friends and devote time to personal writing projects and other endeavors.

“One of the reasons I do this is to have more flexibility with my schedule,” says Eck, who’s been freelancing full time since 2010. “I kind of started because I felt like I was working more than I wanted to work.”

Eck was on sabbatical from her stressful director-level nonprofit communication job when a sunny Minneapolis afternoon altered the course of her career. She was staying with friends, all creatives with ample projects afoot, whom she describes as “hard workers who didn’t overly focus on work.” One afternoon, she sat drinking iced coffee on the lawn with a friend who job-shared with her husband. Her friend’s baby played on a blanket, and another friend with an unconventional schedule joined them.

At left: Daphne Eck, writer and brand strategist

“I remember thinking, ‘It’s the middle of the day and we’re sitting out here having this lovely time, and these people make time for people and for each other,’” says Eck. “It was really refreshing and different than what I’d been doing. After that I was inspired to choose for myself how I wanted to work, rather than have someone say, ‘You’re going to be here these hours, no matter if you’re busy or not, whether you’re burned out or not.’”

Around her working hours, Eck now relishes being able to grab breakfast with a friend, work from her patio on nice days, or do yard work in the afternoon if the weather is perfect for it. Beyond day-to-day flexibility, her schedule has also allowed for grand adventures, like a summer writing workshop with “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed on the Greek island of Patmos, visiting friends in Paris, and working remotely from Portland for a month.

While Eck loves the flexibility her work structure begets, she also deeply values the quality of work it allows her to do.

“I get to be really intentional about the type of work I do and the type of people I work with,” she says. “My business coach had me envision how I wanted to feel at work and that really helped guide the kinds of clients and partners I sought out.”

While Eck has found a great professional path for herself, she notes it’s not necessarily ideal for every worker.

“It’s really hard but really rewarding,” she says. “For me it’s a fit, but I don’t know that it is for everyone, because there’s a risk in it for sure.”

Leah Smith, a 2D artist/illustrator for Boulder, Colorado’s Backflip Studios, has tried on several work arrangements. She enjoyed some elements of freelancing, although ultimately the lack of stability and isolation it presented weren’t compatible with her needs. When she started working what ultimately became a full-time remote gig for Backflip from Omaha, it proved a better fit.

“I appreciated the lack of commute most of all. It was so easy to roll out of bed in the morning and get started, without worrying about traffic, and never forgetting lunch or supplies, or having to think too hard about what to wear,” Smith says.

Smith’s not alone in her appreciation of telework. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. workforce reports a desire to telework at least part of the time, with 2 to 3 days of telework each week seeming the optimum balance to allow for concentrative work that’s more efficient at home, and important collaborative work at the office.
After several months of full-time remote work, Smith desired the collaborative culture of the office setting and transitioned again, relocating to Boulder where she now works in-house at Backflip.

“I really missed being around other professional artists,” says Smith. “Now that I’m in-house, I could still work from home on occasion; the company is very accommodating.”
Between freelance, remote and in-house work, Smith says her remote schedule was the most flexible and allowed the most free time.

“Remote work is great! I think to gain the most from it though, you must be very self-starting and disciplined; otherwise you might find it more frustrating than helpful,” she says. “I enjoyed it very much, and I think if there’s ever any big life event that competes with my career — having kids, for example — I’d feel very comfortable returning to it.”

Inspired by a love of travel, Jessica Buike started her travel agency, Operation Relax, in 2012. Because her industry has seasonal ebb and flow, and can also be stymied or stimulated by unexpected market fluctuations and global events, Buike picked up a secondary gig in 2016 driving for ridesharing apps.

“Driving for Lyft and Uber has really complemented my travel business, because many of the rides I give are to visitors to the Omaha area,” says Buike. “I drive around my travel business needs, so if I have a busy season or day coming up, I can just choose not to drive. It’s a great way to make money whenever I have the time to work.”

Buike says having two flexible, complementary jobs has helped her learn to better balance the personal and professional — which became essential after a 2015 illness inspired re-evaluation.

“I’ve learned it’s really easy to let business and finances run your life while you miss out on the very things that make life worth living,” she says. “It took me landing in the hospital to realize that you need to take a step back sometimes and find a good balance that can work for you, without you working yourself to death.”

Buike previously worked 60 to 70 hour weeks between Operation Relax and traditionally structured part-time gigs, in search of economic stability.

“The flexibility of setting my own hours has really made my life better,” she says. “My health has improved dramatically, because if there’s a day my body needs me to rest or visit a doctor, I can do it without getting a boss’ approval. I’ve also been able to step in and help friends and family with various volunteer or work efforts, which gives my life more fulfillment.”

Ammons says that with wages stagnant since the 1970s, and a shrinking middle class, stressful financial concerns are a major obstacle to well-being for many workers.

“Reducing economic stress would go a long way towards helping families and women achieve work-life harmony,” she says.

While Ammons says flexible and nonstandard work arrangements can benefit women, they’re not a silver bullet for finding happiness.

“Nontraditional arrangements can help women juggle various work and family tasks, but must be carefully tailored and managed so women don’t shortchange themselves and their own needs,” she says. “Women still spend more time daily on household tasks than men. We tend to be the ones who maintain kinship ties—remembering to send birthday cards, planning family reunions, etc.—and mothers spend more time tending to children’s needs than fathers do.”

Eck agrees. “There are just so many expectations on women in the workplace and in the home. I’d like to see women own their power and really be able to choose what they want rather than what they have to do,” she says.

Ammons says that when women feel forced to choose between family and work demands, “flexibility could mean the difference between staying in a job they love and are good at, or dropping out of the labor force.”

Skradski is grateful she wasn’t forced to make that difficult choice, although she didn’t initially expect her flexible work arrangement pitch to be approved.

“I wanted to stay at First National, but had already worked out a ‘Plan B’ in my head for what I would do when I heard ‘No.’ The fact that my manager was even willing to entertain my terms meant that I was valued as an employee and as a person,” she says. “I knew I had my employer’s support, and am grateful that they were, and still are, willing to invest the time and money to make sure I’m happy and fulfilled. It’s made me a more engaged and loyal employee.”

Skradski says she didn’t always see a clear option for women to fully, simultaneously embrace the roles of career and mother, but is pleasantly surprised to see more fellow moms working nontraditional schedules in career-oriented fields. She’s hopeful this trend signals a society where women’s choices are less binary.

“My part time schedule, and the promotions I’ve been allowed to take while working it, have made it possible for my personality type to be a functional working mom,” says Skradski. “It’s OK to be a full-time mom. It’s OK to be 100 percent career-oriented. Some people can excel at one or the other. For me, when I was able to find an acceptable balance of both, I found my pot of gold.”

Similarly, Eck, a travel enthusiast and self-proclaimed introvert, has found her own end of the rainbow. Although self-employed, she’s less focused on entrepreneurship and more focused on making time to nurture projects and delight clients, while also making time for friends, family, creativity and adventure.

“I prefer to be a little bit more autonomous, so it’s not like I’m trying to build some great business; I’m just trying to create a great life for myself,” she says.
Ultimately, each individual must determine the work arrangement that provides him or her the best work-life fit.

“There is no one schedule or way of working that will magically bring work and family or life into harmony,” Ammons says. “What works for one person may not work for another. What works for one person may not align well with others in a household. What works one month may not work the next. Finding balance is a continual process.” W

 

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