The Perils of Flextime

Flexible work arrangements are popular, but they may exact a price – particularly from women who hope to become CFOs.

Is the deadline-driven, pressure-cooker world of corporate finance becoming more accommodating about where and when work gets done? Could a function that has long embodied the traditional 9-to-5, chained-to-your-desk mentality be open to staffers’ requests to work remotely, at odd hours, or part-time? Might that new latitude extend all the way to CFOs themselves?

That depends. Karen Seminara has climbed nimbly up the corporate ladder within General Electric’s NBC Universal, advancing from director of financial planning and analysis for NBC to CFO of its Bravo Network in about seven years. While such trajectories are not uncommon within GE, Seminara’s career path has a unique twist: she’s done it all while working either a three- or four-day week.

At Prudential Financial, division CFO Scott Kaplan pushed his team to assess which positions were ripe for remote work and customized hours two years ago; now, more than a third of the finance staff in the company’s individual life-insurance finance unit uses some type of alternative work arrangement, most working from home at least one day a week. “I don’t think there’s any role that can’t accommodate one day a week from home,” regardless of company size or industry, says Kaplan.

Meanwhile, two finance employees of Santa Cruz, California-based headset maker Plantronics — the payroll manager and a senior financial analyst who handles pricing — have worked primarily from out-of-state locations during the past two years, a result of their spouses having been transferred. The arrangements have “worked out phenomenally well,” says Barbara Scherer, CFO of the $614 million, publicly traded company, with the analyst recently being promoted. “They’re faster than the typical associate, and we have very responsive employees.”

To be sure, Corporate America has been marching toward nontraditional work arrangements for some time — last year alone, 21% of companies introduced flextime. Improved (and cheaper) technology is one big driver, and the recession has proven to be another. Options such as remote work, part-time, and customized schedules are “a very inexpensive way to reward someone,” says Steve Gross, senior partner with Mercer.

But to date, the trend has not been embraced by finance; NBC, Prudential, and Plantronics are still the exceptions to the rule, and a June survey by CFO found that fewer than 20% of finance executives report that their departments offer regular remote work options (see the survey at the end of this article). About a quarter offer part-time or compressed work schedules, but few finance staffers take advantage of those options.

That reluctance may simply be the vestige of corporate cultures that will inevitably change. Then again, it may reflect finance employees’ intuitive appreciation of an unfortunate reality: flexible work arrangements, while prized for many reasons, can carry career-damaging consequences. Many companies don’t think about pro-motion paths for people on such schedules; worse, some companies may regard people who work atypical schedules as being off the career path altogether.

That has profound implications for women, who are the heaviest users of flextime options, usually to accommodate child-rearing. Our survey found that women are the predominant users at 40% of companies, with men almost never making up the majority of users. “If half of your employees are doing a flexible-schedule model, you have to deal with career-pathing, but if it’s only 5% or 10% and they’re all women having babies, it’s easy to ignore promotion paths and then realize you’ve lost a bunch of talent,” says Julie Coffman, a partner at Bain & Co. who is helping the global consulting firm define its own promotion paths for employees on nontraditional schedules.

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