Make Your Own Hours

When copywriter Lisa Daily was offered a job at a small ad agency in Bloomington, Ind., she laid out some gutsy employment terms. As a new mother, she said she could work only 20 hours a week for the first two months, and after that she would split her workday between two hours at the office and six at home. “Shockingly enough, they said yes!” Daily says, laughing. “They bought into it!”

Daily, 38, who is now a relationship expert, columnist and author of Stop Getting Dumped!, says she was in a position to decide her own terms because she had worked at larger shops, had won awards and had a solid book. But she says the arrangement worked well for both sides, and some other employees—mostly working women with small children—soon reworked their schedules, too.

Flexible scheduling means working full-time but with modifications to the traditional 40-hour-in-the-office work week. Some people work four 10-hour days per week, others telecommute, and still others take extended lunch breaks or afternoons off in exchange for coming in early or staying late.

Across all industries, the use of flex time has dropped in the past several years, as workers are more skittish about asking for it and fewer companies are offering it. According to a July report from the Department of Labor, the number of full-time workers age 16 and older who are on flexible schedules dropped from 29 million in May 2001 to 27.4 million in 2004. And the proportion of companies that offer flex time fell from 64 percent in 2002 to 56 percent this year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

In advertising, that figure is slightly above average: In an August survey by the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Management Services Division, 58 percent of agencies said they offer flex time. However, only 48 percent of agencies with 500 or more employees said they do. That makes sense, as smaller shops are often more willing to work around people’s personal lives, says a 4A’s rep.

Eileen McCarthy, vp of human resources for Interpublic Group’s Foote Cone and Belding in San Francisco and Seattle, leads by example with flex time. She began working a flexible schedule in 2000 when her first child was born, and since then, she says, more FCB staffers have taken advantage of the option—again, mostly women with children.

McCarthy says it gives employees confidence when they see someone in a senior position using flex time, adding that the program also helps her recruit talent.

Motherhood isn’t the only impetus for working flexible hours. Many agencies accommodate people who want to pursue other interests. For example, FCB has given flex time to one employee who was a wedding photographer on the side and another who pursued a dog-walking business, McCarthy says.

Garrett Lenoir, a member of FCB’s information-technology department, has used flex time for two years. In his spare time, Lenoir, 38, works on documentary films. His schedule had him working odd hours, so he approached his supervisors about working four-day weeks. “I’d heard of other people in the agency do it,” Lenoir says. “When I heard about it, I thought it would be perfect for me.”

Lenoir says FCB was very supportive. “The big key with flex time is making sure you are available,” he says. “I have my cell phone, and part of my agreement was to check my voicemail on my off days.”

Amy Hoover, evp at Talent Zoo, a staffing firm in Atlanta, says some agencies are offering flex time as an incentive as they staff up. But many employees are afraid of using it, she adds. “They think the person in the cubicle next to them will get the promotion,” she says. “They are scared to death, because it’s so competitive. It’s a buyer’s market now, and people employed know there are so many people in line for their job, they won’t take [flex time] for fear of losing momentum.”

But for others, the lifestyle balance is too important. “We have found employees are willing to accept a lower salary in exchange for flexibility,” says Kel Kelly, CEO of Kel and Partners in Hopkinton, Mass. “In the working world, too many women get put on the ‘mommy track’ after they have a child, when all they need is a little flexibility and respect.”