Cover Story: Striking a Balance

With the faintest hint of light leaking over the horizon in a Seattle suburb, Molly King's alarm clock buzzes, announcing that 5:30 a.m. has arrived. King rises quietly, stretches, puts on a robe, and meanders to a room at the other end of the house, where she wakes her computer from its own sleep mode.

The vice president of registration services for independent planning firm CRG Events knows she has about 90 minutes to answer attendee e-mails and address other components of her upcoming meeting before her nine-month-old baby, Nathan, begins to stir in his crib. Once the stirring begins, King shifts into being mommy; over the next three hours she'll feed, change, play with, and eventually coax a nap from her boy. Then it's back to the computer, or to the phone for a conference call.

She repeats this routine throughout the day—a few hours focused on work, a few hours focused on meals, chores, and family time—until it's 11 p.m., when she finally shuts down her computer and rests alongside her husband and child, who are already fast asleep.

This flexible, work-at-home arrangement she uses each Tuesday and Thursday "definitely makes my day longer—it starts really early and ends really late—but it's totally worth it to me," says King, a 10-year event-planning veteran. "To succeed, I have to stay consistent and disciplined, no matter if I work from home or in the office on a given day. So on those two days I'm home, I have a set list of things I know I must do for work—the tasks of highest priority. I attack those items first thing in the morning. And when Nathan wakes up, I also have a routine, because then we both know what to expect, and I don't have to put any thought into what I need to do next.

"Living this way involves constant planning," she adds. "But it makes both my work time and personal time easier, and keeps me enjoying what I do for a living."

King's balance of her work and home lives is something many employees yearn for. According to a survey by the job search website, Monster.com, 40 percent of men say their current employers were not flexible enough regarding work/family balance. The survey also found that 41 percent of women would refuse a job if it didn't provide work-hour flexibility. And companies are starting to respond—albeit slowly. Recent research from the Families and Work Institute found that 31 percent of organizations surveyed nationwide allow employees to work off-site on a regular basis.

The project-oriented structure of meeting planning makes planners strong candidates to become part of a flex-time program or spearhead an initiative for the establishment of one in their companies. Here's a look at why your organization should consider it and how to do it successfully.

The Door is Opening
"The one subject I am hearing people across all generations talking about today is work/life balance," says Bonnie Wallsh, chief strategist for consulting and training firm Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, in Charlotte, NC. "Maybe [it's a lingering response to] September 11, when people started saying, 'There has to be more to life than this. I have to start looking at my family and my personal life differently.' " Wallsh opted for the flexibility of self-employment in the wake of battling cancer in the 1990s and then having to care for several ailing family members a few years later.

Gloria Nelson, chief experience officer for Gloria Nelson Event Design in Winneconne, WI, is another entrepreneurial planner who in recent years has cared for a family member with health issues. She finds that "with extenuating life circumstances more prevalent—there's a 'sandwich generation' of adults caring for aging parents and school-aged children simultaneously—flexibility as a way to maintain balance is simply becoming a necessity. And the interesting thing about the generation just coming into the working world is that they seem to be much better at defining the boundaries of their personal time. So this is an issue employers will have to come to terms with if they want to keep their good employees."

Fortunately, says Wallsh, "I do think that more bosses are accepting of having employees work in a place where they can't always monitor them. They are looking at the quality of work their people produce rather than just the number of hours they put in."

What You Can Do
Proactive employees can be the catalyst for firms to embrace work-schedule flexibility. So if you are looking for a way to persuade the boss that you can do your job as well, or even better, if given some flexibility, here's a sound framework to use: Put in writing the tasks you can do from an off-site location; detail how and when you will remain in communication when off site; and propose to test the new setup over a trial period. Pat Katepoo, founder of the consultancy Work options.com, recently told U.S. News & World Report that "even if [supervisors] are nervous about a nontraditional arrangement, they will feel some sense of control if there's an option for stopping it."

Sometimes, an employee will hesitate to ask for a flexible setup because "when you're on the way up in the working world, you become concerned that if you're not physically present most of the time, you'll be too far off management's radar screen when promotions come around," says Wallsh. "In that case, the balance you must strike is that you go into the office for the majority of the week so that you are present for meetings and other interactions, and the rest of the time you work from your preferred location. Having two days—or even just one day—away from the office each week could make all the difference in your life."

One need only look at Molly King's situation to see such a difference. Fortunately for King, her boss, Leasa Mayer, is convinced that work/life balance is a central element in creating happy, loyal, and productive employees. As president of CRG Events since 1996, Mayer oversees 75 employees, all but seven of whom are based in the Seattle office. CRG does about 150 events each year for software and other technology clients, ranging from 500 attendees up to 13,000.

"The majority of meeting planners are women, and employers have an opportunity with flexible scheduling to help women develop their careers even while they raise their children," says Mayer. "At our firm, though, most women and men alike choose to work from home one or two days a week, regardless of whether they have children. Just that change of pace, the ability to do laundry or run errands or whatever, makes their lives easier, and I think it helps morale and productivity."

The CGR Flex-Time Roadmap
There is, however, an initial period when CRG Events employees must pay their dues and prove that they're able to handle a flexible work schedule. "For the first two to three years, you are an hourly, nonexempt employee here, and you have to come to the office every day," Mayer says. "Once you prove that you're good at event planning and you're a responsible team player, you become a salaried manager and get flexible-work privileges—you and your supervisor figure out a schedule that works for both parties."

The beauty of event planning, says Mayer, is that it is project-based work where tasks can be distributed. "We hardly ever have one person working an entire program. Teams of three people are most common—one hourly person who is in the office full time, and two managers who have flexible schedules. We are still highly collaborative through the use of technology&151;people use [instant messaging] even when teammates are right down the hall, so what's the difference if they are here or at home? Collaboration and working remotely are not mutually exclusive with today's technology."

Mayer does emphasize that "people in the planning profession know the job is very labor intensive, so a flexible setup requires personal discipline. One month out from a 1,000-person event, you can bet that our people are going home to make dinner, sit with the kids, and put them to bed&151;and then continuing their event work either late at night or early in the morning."

On the other hand, Mayer refuses to distribute technological tools other than laptop computers to employees: "That's all they need if they are staying disciplined—if you plan things properly, you don't need to be constantly accessible after business hours."

During the annual performance reviews, "people say that the flexible setup improves their loyalty, because they feel trusted and respected," Mayer says. "It also makes them want to stay with our company and do a fabulous job for clients and for each other. And at the end of the day, our program only works because it works for the clients—they don't know where we work from, and they don't care."

Veteran planner Gloria Nelson adds: "At any firm, the work setup will likely be different for each individual, based upon the pressing issues in someone's life.But if someone is a valuable member of an organization, it makes far greater sense for management to be flexible. This way, the employee stays in the job because he or she feels that the firm is as committed to the employee as the employee is to the firm. Besides, it costs far more for a company to hire and train someone new if an employee feels burned out and leaves than to simply try a flexible setup."

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Technology Gives—And Takes
High-speed internet service allows employees to remotely access just about everything they need to get their work done. This has changed the dynamic of work life—though not always in a way that's better for employees.

Back in the mid-1990s Bill Gates predicted that the workweek would evolve into a series of five-hour workdays, thanks to productivity gains through technology. Well, the opposite is too often true today: Many bosses have come to expect that employees with computers in their family rooms, laptops in their carry cases, or BlackBerries on their hips will check and answer e-mail and phone messages at virtually all hours, and on weekends too. That's hardly the recipe for balance in one's life, or for creating a desire to remain with a company for very long.

On the other hand, smart employees, including many meeting planners like King, are turning the tables, using the power of technology to have it all: a developing career, a satisfied family, and even enough time to get decent rest. The key is that these workers proactively communicate with their bosses and co-workers; develop a plan to be accessible during certain hours—and inaccessible during certain hours; and work wisely and efficiently enough so that customers and co-workers alike can't tell when they aren't in the office throughout the traditional workweek.

And there's one other element that is critical to success: Managers who recognize not only the value of their employees, but also the loyalty and extra effort they'll gain from employees who are granted flexible working situations.

Originally published October 01, 2007

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