Lisa Kennedy

(WOMENSENEWS)–There is such a thing as work-life balance. Most days Lisa Kennedy feels like she’s achieved it.

For the last 18 years, with some time off to raise her two daughters, Kennedy, 40, has worked at Ernst and Young, much of the time since 1996 on a flexible schedule. She’s missed only one event for her eldest daughter in the last four years and this summer she was named a partner at the firm.

While some weeks Kennedy works 50 hours, there are those where she puts in just 25. It all depends on what her clients and her children need. She’s not a lone wolf either. More than 2,300 colleagues at her New York City-based employer, including nearly 100 partners, principals and directors, work on a formal Flexible Work Arrangement.

This kind of flexibility is sought after by women in particular. More women than men–44 percent versus 36 percent–take advantage of flexible arrival and departure times, according to a June 2004 report by Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory organization that focuses on women’s issues. The survey found that women are more likely than men to telecommute (23 percent versus 15 percent), take a leave or sabbatical (39 percent versus 32 percent) or change their work schedules ad-hoc (14 percent versus 9 percent).

But the kind of flexibility that Kennedy enjoys is still only available to the fortunate few.

Many workers worry about the potentially negative impact on their career, according to the Catalyst report. Only 15 percent of women and 20 percent of men in the Catalyst study said they could use a flexible work arrangement without jeopardizing career advancement. Equal proportions of women and men–14 percent for both–think they can use a parental leave or sabbatical without hurting their career advancement.

Less Flexibility

That kind of cultural uneasiness is now also being joined by a slowing down of the trend toward flexibility.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s corporations–both large and mid-sized–seemed to be on the brink of making child care related perks the norm. For example, in 1982 there were 415 employer-sponsored child care programs in operation, by 1998 they numbered approximately 8,000, according to Susan Seitel, president and founder, Work and Family Connection, Inc., a Minneapolis-based work-life information and consulting firm.

But with the lackluster stock market, tight job market and layoffs that were common over the last few years, combined with double-digit increases in health care costs during the last five years, the pace of adding new family-friendly benefits slowed in some corporations, says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York City.

"Work-life showed up on the cutting block," adds Seitel. When Work and Family Connection conducted a study last year, nearly three-fourths of the 52 work-life professionals and managers who responded to their online survey said investments in work-life efforts had been cut recently because of the economy.

Employers who offer job sharing fell to 17 percent in 2004 from 26 percent in 2001, according to a 2004 benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, based in Alexandria, Va.

Employers offering flextime in 2004 fell to 57 percent, down from 64 percent two years earlier. Those offering emergency and sick child care this year fell to 9 percent, down from 14 percent in 2001.

Some Benefits Grow

Some benefits, however, grew. Adoption assistance was offered by 18 percent of employers up from 11 percent in 2000, while dependent-care flexible spending accounts rose to 73 percent in 2004 from 63 percent in 2000.

"While there’s been no data on the effects of the cutbacks, one can assume that such changes make it difficult to be a good employee and good family member, particularly for primary caregivers," says Linda Meric, director of 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women, based in Milwaukee.

For many workers, meanwhile, flexible scheduling is still a remote luxury. "Forty seven percent of the private sector work force doesn’t have paid sick leave," said Jodi Grant, director of work-family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

However, with the economy beginning to show signs of strength, for example, some firms have resumed hiring, family friendly benefits are back in the spotlight. The reason is purely business.

"Smart employers understand that family friendly policies are good for their bottom line; they offer returns on investments," says Diane Halpern, director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family and Children at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"People are our asset. Family friendly policies and programs give us a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining great talent. Culture counts," agrees Barbara Wankoff, KPMG’s workplace solutions director.

It’s about recruitment and retention, which are taking on new urgency.

An astounding 75 percent of employees are looking for new jobs, according to the 2004 U.S. Job Recovery and Retention Survey released by the Society for Human Resource Management and Nearly 40 percent of human-resource professionals surveyed said they have noticed an increase in turnover since the start of the year.

However, it’s no secret what employees want–flexibility. When Work and Family Connection conducted a survey this summer on its Web site and asked what would convince employees not to leave, nearly two-thirds of the 170 respondents said flexibility. Employers know what they need to do and smart ones are finding ways to meet employees’ needs.

KPMG offers a comprehensive suite of benefits like flextime, telecommuting, compressed workweek, job sharing, paid parental leave, dependent care and shared leave. The company also recently rolled out discount programs with retail vendors, which will permit employees to take advantage of special deals for amusement parks, museums, retailers such as Lands’ End to electronics and travel, for example.

Such offerings are much to the delight of employees like Dara Bazzano, 37, a senior manager who ranks one level below partner and works flexible hours.

"Every week is different. Sometimes I’m up at 4 a.m. talking to multinational clients, in the office by 8:30 a.m., or getting off in time to make my son’s baseball game," she says.

The firm picked up the tab to set up her home office. She joined KPMG in 2000 and was lured away by another firm for seven months. Her new office was closer to her home, she made more money, worked fewer hours and had less stress. But because that job didn’t offer her the same flexibility, she went back to KPMG.

"It was a drastic pay cut to come back, but flexibility is priceless," says Bazzano who has three children between the ages of 9 and 11.

And what about her career?

"The firm is clear," she says. "I’m on track to be partner."

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y. She specializes in personal finance, small business and general business.