More Emory employees explore flexible work options

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 2, 2014

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Margie Varnado, who works in the Emory Laney Graduate School's Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, telecommutes every Wednesday, allowing her to enjoy a break from traffic and return to her office refreshed the next day. Emory Photo/Video.

Most days, Margie Varnado rises around 4:30 a.m. to prepare for her morning commute — a 60-mile vanpool ride that will take her from Jackson, Georgia, about an hour south of Atlanta, to her job in the Emory Laney Graduate School's Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Varnado, a business manager, typically surrenders nearly three hours a day to traffic. In fact, she's been known to finish work tasks over her lunch break in order to avoid the thickest snarl of the evening rush hour.

All told, it makes for nearly a 12-hour workday, a reality she accepted long ago.

But one day a week, that all changes.

Through a flexible work arrangement negotiated with her supervisor, Varnado telecommutes every Wednesday — a shift that she credits with making a positive impact on both her well-being and productivity.

On telecommute days, she rises around 7 a.m. and is at her computer by 7:30 a.m., the regular start to her workday. No extra time required to dress up for work, no time-consuming traffic battles.

The difference is profound, says Varnado. Not only is she able to grab extra sleep, she avoids the physical and mental stress of a three-hour commute. And working without the small, daily interruptions that routinely unfold in the workplace allows her "to get so much more work done"

"The quiet is relaxing," she says. "And working from home on Wednesdays gives me a mid-week break, so it's actually kind of refreshing to go back in and see everyone the next day.

"Overall, I'm very grateful," she adds. "Not only does it benefit me, I think it benefits the university in the long run — employees are able to get a lot more work done with a lot less stress."

Growing interest in flex options

Varnado is among a fast-growing number of workers at Emory — and across the nation — exploring the benefits of flexible work arrangements, from telecommuting options and job sharing to adjusted work schedules, phased retirement, and compressed work weeks.

The trend is part of a broader picture: Studies have underscored the advantages of workplace flexibility for both individuals and businesses. Such arrangements are credited with boosting productivity, well-being and morale; reducing stress; and helping companies attract and retain top talent.

While flexible work arrangements have long existed at Emory, in the past they were often handled through quiet informal agreements, says Audrey Adelson, work-life manager for the Emory Worklife Resource Center (EWLRC).

Over the past five years, however, Adelson has seen a steady increase in managers and employees seeking help with creating and formalizing flexible work agreements.

Launched in 2008, the EWLRC initially served as a resource for employees and managers seeking guidance in what was then called an "alternative work arrangement," says Adelson.

Over time, the center's approach has shifted to meet an increasing demand for flexibility on campus, she explains.

Every other month, the center now provides Flex Information Sessions for Managers, a one-hour introductory workshop to help managers understand more about the benefits of workplace flexibility — sessions that often fill quickly, typically drawing between 30 and 40 managers each time they're held, she adds.

Adelson reports that the center has experienced a significant change in the types of requests made at the university; much of her time is currently spent consulting with departments and learning about what is driving the need for flexibility. She offers training to help both managers and their staffs learn more about the best practices to succeed in creating a flexible work environment.

"We're now seeing all kinds of innovative approaches to how, where and when work can be accomplished," Adelson says.

In fact, a workplace survey of Emory staff members conducted in November 2011 found that 64 percent of staff reported they were already working with some flexibility.

"While some of that may be informal — say, the ability to work from home occasionally or change a schedule to attend a doctor's appointment — I suspect that we will see more formalized arrangements in our next survey, which will be repeated toward the end of this year," she adds.

What's driving the change?

Shifting workforce demographics, the pace of busy lives, heightened workloads, a rise in both dual-income families and single-led households, the demands of dependent care responsibilities, and daunting commutes have all contributed to the need for greater workplace flexibility.

"This is the world we live in today — really, everyone needs some flexibility," says Adelson, who adds that most of the questions she fields target helping employees better balance the demands of work and home.

In response, some Emory departments have begun to use flexibility in a more strategic way, examining how they could offer more flexible coverage and extend office hours to meet the changing needs of students and customers, she notes.

 Adelson encourages managers to consider taking a "reason neutral" approach to approving flexible work, focusing less on the specific reason that an employee is requesting a flexible work arrangement and more on if the job is suitable for the type of work arrangement being requested and if the employee's work performance is supportive of piloting an attempt.

It's also important for both managers and employees to understand that not all jobs are suitable for all types of arrangements and that flexibility looks different depending on the nature of the work and how well it is being done, she notes.

"Flexible work arrangements should remain flexible so that they can be modified from time to time as personal and work demands fluctuate," Adelson says.

 "I help departments look at a variety of flexible work arrangements so that they can find solutions that will work best for them," she says. "In the process, I've found that managers and employees who have a better understanding of best practices tend to be more successful at working flexibly, base performance using measureable results, and maintain strong and open communication with their team."

That approach was critical to the Office of Financial Aid, which had explored various informal flex arrangements over the years, with little success.

And so Adelson was invited to step in, recalls Erik Lips, associate director in the Office of Financial Aid. "She provided a preview training for our staff this spring and helped us pilot a four-month telecommute and flex option, which was great," says Lips, who adds that managers also attended her free flex-information sessions.

As a result, "the office was able to set up policies, within a loose framework, to help drive home what was needed," he adds. "It's much more customizable than I thought."

Since the Office of Financial Aid is known for providing "a personal touch" to students seeking help, Lips knew "there are certain times we just have to be there."

"Audrey gave us important questions we needed to ask ourselves," he adds. "Clearly, not every job is suited to telecommuting or flexible work hours. It helped to have an outside voice point that out."

For their pilot program, some employees worked a compressed week; others telecommuted once a week. The only drawback: Negotiating minor technical glitches around Emory's VPN system and forwarding telephones, Lips reports.

"I know our staff members have enjoyed it," he adds. "The process of setting it up isn't always easy. But there was a benefit to having a pilot phase, which allows you to flesh out issues as they arise."

Keys to flexibility success

Increasingly, flexibility is no longer seen as a workplace perk, but rather part of an overall strategy to attract and retain a diverse workforce, Adelson says.

"We've had departments contacting us because flexibility questions are even coming up in job interviews," she notes.

That was true for Angela McCoy. When she changed departments within Emory recently, job flexibility was high on her workplace wish list.

McCoy began exploring flex options initially while working as a senior program coordinator at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 2006. She began by adjusting her hours, starting her workday by 7 a.m. to beat the traffic; later she was given permission to telecommute one day a week "which literally added three hours back to my day," McCoy recalls.

It helped that she had an established, supportive relationship with her then-manager, professor Mark Wilson, and a computer-based job "that could literally be done anywhere," she adds.

McCoy knows her own flexibility is required, too — during peak grant time, she is in the office as needed — along with the self-discipline to work without constant supervision.

In the end, it's all about getting the work done, notes Wilson, a research professor in developmental and cognitive neuroscience at Yerkes Research Center.

"Angela was exceptional about working under minimal supervision," he recalls. "Telecommuting seemed like a perfect fit, saving her hours in commute time and helping the environment by not burning fossil fuels."

McCoy found the continued flexibility she was seeking in her new position in Rollins School of Public Health, where she's now a pre-award specialist II and is permitted to telecommute one day a week.