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.

In short, the “mommy track” may have gotten wider, with more companies offering more kinds of flexibility to working mothers, but it may also be diverging more than ever from the path to the top. “It’s kind of the unspoken rule,” says one female CFO of a midsize, publicly traded company who did not want to be identified. “Quite honestly, you have to be present to be really involved at the highest level of the business and to be eligible for career-advancement opportunities.”

No Phoning It In

One thing most CFOs agree on is that once you reach the top, flexible schedules aren’t an option. “When it’s the end of the quarter, I’m here from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, and I can’t believe any other CFO doesn’t do the same thing,” says Ron Fior, CFO of sales performance management company Callidus Software. Adds Darlene Deptula-Hicks, CFO of medical-device maker iCAD: “When significant events happen, like equity raises or acquisitions, you need to be available for the impromptu changes that often occur. Can you accomplish that remotely? Probably not.”

Flexible arrangements “are not part of the conversation” in finance executive searches for large public companies, says Thomas Kolder, an executive recruiter with Crist/Kolder Associates. “It’s effectively assumed that your work hours are going to be over the top,” particularly with travel and a relationship with operations as major components of the job these days.

Even at small nonpublic organizations, which ostensibly have fewer deadlines and little or no investor scrutiny, the CFO can cross flexible work arrangements off the perks list. In a recent CFO search for a small nonprofit museum, for example, several candidates, both male and female, expressed interest in either flexible stop/start times or regularly working from home, says Damian Zikakis, a managing director at Boyden Global Executive Search. The museum, however, said it wasn’t possible, other than occasional exceptions for specific events.

The all-or-nothing nature of the top finance post may explain why a certain ceiling seems to be establishing itself regarding how often women hold the CFO post. Just 9% of Fortune 500 CFOs are women, according to CFO’s recent analysis, up only a hair from last year and the two preceding years (see the chart below). The current figure is remarkably consistent across publicly traded companies of all sizes. An analysis of the CFO Midcap 1500 index — publicly traded companies with revenues of $100 million to $1 billion — finds that women hold the top finance post at 9.6% of companies ranked 1–500, 8.8% of companies ranked 501–1,000, and 9.0% of companies ranked 1,001–1,500.

Recruiters say there are various reasons why women occupy fewer than 10% of CFO positions. One is that boards are eager to hire CFOs who have held the title before, making the numbers somewhat “self-perpetuating,” says Ellen Williams, an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International. But it’s also not unusual for women to select themselves out of such roles, she notes, by declining to move or to work excessive hours.

Still, Williams and others are hopeful that the numbers will climb, albeit not likely dramatically, over coming years. “Anecdotally, I am seeing a next generation of female finance leaders who can and want to rise to the CFO role,” says Lorraine Hack, executive recruiter with Heidrick & Struggles, and “I have seen a lot of companies becoming more cognizant of diversity (or their lack thereof) and making a conscious effort to recruit, retain, and grow such talent.” Whether or not that will extend to more-flexible hours, of course, remains to be seen.

I Can’t Do It, But You Can

But what about other positions? Most CFOs readily accommodate one-off requests to leave early, or work from home, to, say, attend a child’s baseball game. Others go a step further and allow employees to set their own office hours. Julie Bradley, CFO of Art Technology Group, an e-commerce consultancy, says that two finance staffers regularly work alternative hours (6 a.m. to 4 p.m.) with no ill effects. “I always know how to get in touch with them,” she says. “With technology, face time should become less important.”

According to CFO’s survey, a full 95% of finance executives allow staff to structure their workdays with flexible start and stop times, and 60% permit ad-hoc work-from-home arrangements. But when it comes to regular arrangements along those lines, the numbers dip dramatically.

The percentage of female CFOs in the Fortune 500 has changed little over the past five years.

A constant stream of deadlines, many of which require
assembly-line-like teamwork, is one reason. “Even though we’re in a wired world, working as a team member is still important,” says Linda Havard, the 12-year veteran CFO of Playboy Enterprises until the end of 2009. While she did allow several women in her finance department, including a director of external reporting and an assistant treasurer, to work from home or work reduced hours in order to retain them, the arrangements weren’t always easy. “When we had to file, we had to file — we needed [them to put in] extra time,” she recalls. And will part-timers be able to be promoted? In general, “only in rare instances,” she says.

Indeed, the question for any employee who avails him- or herself of flextime options is what impact it may have on advancement. For one, advancement in finance may be as much a function of the familiarity that comes from working together as it is of performance. “If you’re not there, you’re not participating in the process directly. That can be an impediment to moving up in the organization,” says Callidus’s Fior, who is nonetheless considering some formal work-from-home arrangements in order to retain key employees following an office relocation.

There’s also the fact that finance supports and increasingly interacts with business operations, which for the most part run on a traditional — or longer — schedule. Flexible schedules in finance are “more challenging, particularly because we’re a shared-services group for offices across the country,” says Renée Hornbaker, CFO of Shared Technologies, a communications technology provider. “Other people in the organization expect to have access to you during their time, at least during standard working hours.”

Certainly, even the biggest proponents of flexible work arrangements would not say that they should be universally offered across the finance department. “[Finance staff members] in sales operations are constantly working across lines of business, so they can’t really work from home, or on a reduced schedule, because if a deal comes through on a day you’re off, that work still needs to be done,” says ATG’s Bradley. Fior believes all heads of departments need to be in the office at least 90% of the common office hours, to “show by example.” Anyone doing Sarbanes-Oxley work, testing controls, or handling AP is also generally expected to be in the office.

Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) staffers could spend some time out of the office, he says, but “they play a very critical role in making sure managers and leadership are up to date, and the only way to do that is to be here, having face-to-face meetings with, say, an operations executive who doesn’t have a clue about financials.”

The CFO survey found that finance executives believe jobs in the areas of financial reporting, accounts payable, and FP&A are best-suited to some form of nontraditional schedule, while the treasurer role and tax and business-unit finance functions seem to be even less suited to flexibility than the CFO post itself.

Culture Shift

Making the most of flexible work arrangements will require a concerted effort across the organization. Executives who support the concept need to set the proper tone at the top. “I telecommute occasionally myself, and when I do, I try to do it in a very visible way,” says Kaplan of Prudential Financial. To that end, he recently led a monthly awards presentation from home, via teleconference. He also surveyed his department about how interested people were in various flextime options, and then led general education sessions about what would be offered — and expected — before formally rolling it out.

Those seeking flexibility must also approach it in the right way. Bravo’s Seminara says that even though she has been adamant about working a reduced schedule while her children are young, she waited until she was the leading candidate for a position before bringing up the topic. Then, she had to do a “fair amount of selling,” including framing her proposal as somewhat negotiable.

“I’ve always started those talks with, ‘Let’s try this and circle back in six weeks, and you can tell me what’s working and what’s not,’” she says. Rather than broadcasting her schedule limitations, she typically “asks politely to have meetings scheduled between Monday and Thursday.” And she says it’s important to acknowledge that flexibility applies to “both sides of the arrangement: if a presentation to the CEO of NBC is scheduled for a Friday, I will be here, with no complaints.”

At most companies, such arrangements seem to foster rather than impede employee performance. Perhaps as companies become more comfortable with the tactical considerations of implementing and managing flextime policies, they will turn their attention toward assessing how such policies can not only help them hang on to good employees, but ensure that those employees continue to advance. That would be particularly good news for women who aspire to the CFO post. It may even help them break the 10% ceiling.

Alix Stuart is senior editor for human capital and careers at CFO. Additional reporting was provided by Jane Coulter.

 

 

Balancing Flextime with Face-Time

When does remote work enhance productivity, and when do employees need to show up? In many cases, technology is a key factor in answering both of those questions. Technologies that equip employees with a true virtual office, including voice-over PC, videoconferencing, and desktop-sharing capabilities, bridge the gap between remote workers and their colleagues like never before.

Flexible work arrangements can also create a refuge from the office din. Plantronics introduced the option about two years ago, and some employees now exercise it for reasons other than scheduling convenience. The company’s head of financial planning and analysis, for example, recently stayed home, away from the noisy cubicle environment, to complete Web-based training for a new software system, says CFO Barbara Scherer. Such arrangements also come in handy when a deadline looms. “If you know you’ve got to crank [it out], you may be better off working remotely some days,” says Green Mountain Coffee Roasters CFO Fran Rathke.

The hard costs for equipping employees with the technology needed to work remotely can be minimal, says Scherer. At Plantronics, for example, laptops with unified communications software allow people to work anywhere, and PC-based calls and conferencing use the company’s own audio devices. Some employees have opted for desktop cameras to enhance the sense of “being there.” As Scherer says, “The goal is to empower associates to communicate and collaborate effortlessly, regardless of location.”

One major inhibiting factor to finance employees working at home, of course, is the need for security around financial data and cash. At Plantronics, communications from laptops to servers are encrypted, and other security practices keep the firm compliant with Sarbanes-Oxley and payment-card-industry rules.

True, a payroll manager who works remotely most days must still come in to the office from time to time to make sure the checks and payroll data are secure. Other than that, Scherer says, “I don’t think people notice the difference, except she has a great personality and it’s nice to interact with her [in person].” — Jane Coulter

 

 

Finance executives are receptive to flexible work arrangements, but only up to a point.

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