Society for Human Resource Management

More employers give green light to flexible hours

May 3, 2012: 9:52 AM ET

One way this economic slowdown has differed from past recessions: Efforts to help people balance work and family actually increased, says one study.

FORTUNE -- Business is booming at Harris Allied, a New York City-based recruiting firm that specializes in finding IT talent and quantitative analysts for investment banks and other financial services companies. "Candidates come to us because they want to change jobs, and a lack of balance between work and home life is usually the reason," says managing director Kathy Harris. "People get tired of working 16-hour days. I had one executive tell me he hadn't had dinner with his family in six months."

Now that the job market is showing signs of life again, she adds, "More people are making a move. And, when a key person quits in order to get more balance in their lives, it often comes as a complete surprise to their employer."

But, perhaps taking a lesson from past recessions -- when throwing work-life balance concerns under the bus led to a stampede for the exits when times improved -- it seems some companies took a different approach this time.

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According to the 2012 National Study of Employers, a massive survey of companies across a range of industries conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, more employers now try to accommodate their staffers' work-life needs than in pre-recession 2005.

Consider: 77% of the companies polled now permit or encourage flextime, up from 66% in 2005. About two-thirds (66%) let people work from home sometimes, a big jump from 34% seven years ago. Turning down overtime is more widely acceptable, too. Only 28% of companies in 2005 gave workers any say in whether or when they put in extra hours. Now, 44% do.

The trend toward greater workplace flexibility seems likely to continue, says Henry Jackson, SHRM's president and CEO, because "it's clear that, to remain competitive, employers have to find ways to offer flexible work options if they want to attract and retain top talent."

Another new survey, this one by HR consultants Workplace Options, found that a whopping 79% of Millennials (ages 18 to 29) said they'd prefer to work for employers who allow flexible schedules, especially during the summer.

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"There are always going to be crunch deadlines, but as a long-term thing, people are just saying 'no' to putting in endless hours at work. They're telling us, 'Life's too short to miss my kids' childhood entirely,'" says Kathy Harris.

Echoing Jackson at SHRM, she adds, "Now that there are more job opportunities out there, employers who haven't come to terms with their key employees' work-life balance issues are going to have to start."

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