Study: Employers benefit by offering flexibility to workers with kids home alone

'Agile workplace' can boost productivity by reducing stress parents feel when their school-age children are unattended

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Celeste Suchko adjusts her schedule at Downtown accounting firm Alpern Rosenthal according to her professional demands -- as well as her sons' school calendar.

Over the summer, while her boys, ages 8 and 5, are out of school, the tax shareholder works three days a week. When the school year starts, she adds a fourth day. During the intense tax period from January to April, she puts in five days. But even while she's working a full-time schedule, Ms. Suchko, 39, tries to work from home at least one day a week to make sure her children get to their after-school activities, including sports and guitar lessons.

Some of the staff members on her team, she said, maintain a regular "teacher's schedule" -- arriving in the office around 7 a.m. so they can make it home when their children get off the school bus.

If more companies were as attuned to flexibility as Alpern, a new study suggests, they could improve productivity by reducing the time working parents spend worrying about what their children are doing after school.

Catalyst, the New York-based research organization that conducted the study, calls the phenomenon PCAST, or Parental Concerns about After School Time. Catalyst estimates that PCAST affects at least 35 percent of the labor force, putting it among the workplace stress factors that cost $50 billion to $300 billion annually in lost productivity.

Catalyst conducted the study with the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. It was based on a survey of 1,755 working parents of which 44.7 percent were men and 55.3 percent were women. All of them worked at one of three Fortune 100 firms.

While 75 percent of those surveyed said their concerns about after-school time were greatly reduced when their employers gave them flexibility to accommodate their children's schedules, many respondents worried that such arrangements could jeopardize future advancement in their careers.

Some of the highest stress levels are with parents whose children are in grades six through 12 and no longer attend after-school or day care programs and thus are more likely to be unsupervised, the study concluded. It also found that women worry more than men because they usually have the primary responsibility for child care.

Though all businesses cannot provide as much flexibility as Alpern does, more companies can strive to create an "agile workplace" where employees would be under less stress about work-life balance, said Laura Sabattini, a director in Catalyst's research department.

"It does include flexible hours and telecommuting but it's a broader concept than that," she said. "It's being able to focus on results rather than employees' presence in the office, or the time they spend there."

For instance, companies that need employees to conduct business around the clock could offer "bankable hours" that workers could tap for family issues at different times, Ms. Sabattini said.

If companies aren't large enough to operate their own child care or after-school facilities, they could help working parents find such resources in the community or help them arrange transportation for children to after-school centers, she said.

"It's about finding creative and different ways to make the organization and employees more effective."

One company where those kind of benefits are already in place is Del Monte Foods, which is based in San Francisco with 550 employees in Pittsburgh.

Besides flexible scheduling and telecommuting, Del Monte offers an assistance program that, among other things, helps arrange child care and summer camps for working parents.

"Our company's vision is nourishing families and enriching lives every day," said Del Monte spokeswoman Melissa Murphy-Brown. "Obviously it's necessary to make sure employees feel the same way. It's about work-life balance and recognizing we all have lives outside of the office and sometimes we need to deal with them and balance them."

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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