Beyond reported increases in telecommuting and flexible work schedules, recent studies show that more employers are cutting back programs that would allow workers to reduce hours to better manage the care of, say, an ill parent. Employers have also cut back the length of leave to new fathers and adoptive parents, and reduced pay given to birth mothers on leave. And fewer employers are encouraging supervisors to assess workers' performance by what they accomplish, instead of resorting to measures like hours worked or face time.
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"They are more willing to let you shuffle what you do over the course of a day, but they are more reluctant to grant you days when you are just not there or are working part-time," said Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute, a research group.
For instance, 38 percent of employers allow some of their workers to work from home on a regular basis, up from 23 percent in 2008, according to the 2014 National Study of Employers, conducted by Dr. Matos' group and the Society for Human Resource Management, which surveyed more than 1,000 employers with more than 50 workers. About 43 percent of employers let some workers compress their workweeks, holding relatively steady from 2008.
But few workers are permitted to reduce their workloads: Only 18 percent of employers allowed some workers to share jobs in 2014, down from 29 percent in 2008, while 36 percent of employers allowed some workers to cut hours or move to part time without losing their position in 2014, which is relatively flat compared to 2008.
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Even though flexible arrangements often improve retention, part of the reason they are not more widespread, workplace experts say, is because they require a leap of faith that employees won't become less productive. Then there's the inertia factor. Even where the arrangements may technically be on the books, managers do not always know how to manage people — or they lack the training needed — in a flexible work arrangement, experts said.
For employees, the benefits are fairly obvious: They feel less stressed and more in control of their time, studies show, and it encourages healthier behavior.
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But even beyond that, true workplace flexibility could help eliminate the gender wage gap, according to a paper published last month by Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard. Women are often paid less than men in the similar jobs because women are less likely to work the longest hours or particular hours — and those who do receive disproportionate increases in pay, she said.
Flexibility can help eradicate unequal pay, she said, but jobs need to be revamped so workers could operate more independently in certain types of jobs or become better substitutes for one another. Obstetricians, pharmacists and anesthesiologists are good examples of workers who often seamlessly substitute for one another.
"When there is less focus on where and when the work gets done, people are paid in proportion to the hours they work instead of being paid disproportionately more for working long hours," said Professor Goldin. "A firm can have a set of family-friendly policies that protect workers. But that does not mean that these workers earn the same amount as others or that they are promoted at the same rate."
Highly skilled workers — and certain professional, technology and science occupations — are more likely to be offered the most flexible options, studies have found. Cisco Systems, for instance, lets workers to take unpaid breaks of one to two years with health benefits for the first year — to pursue a graduate degree, to care for an ill parent or just to recharge their batteries.
Jobs in manufacturing offer fewer options. For people in lower-wage jobs, flexibility often means something quite different: Employees are the ones who need to be flexible, since many of their hours and schedules may change on a whim based on their employer's needs.
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"Most organizations still treat workplace flexibility as an accommodation," said Erin Kelly, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. "But there is a lot of downside when you set up flex work arrangements as a perk. You are implicitly saying, 'Most of us will be working these traditional ways and the rewards will come to those working these traditional ways.' And that is where you have this stigma or career penalties."
To be truly successful, flexibility needs to be ingrained in the employer's culture and seen as available to workers of all stripes. Mr. Dalton's employer, Ernst & Young, and the accounting industry as a whole, are known as pioneers in workplace flexibility. Their program, which dates back to the early 1990s, was put in place to retain women who were leaving at a rate that was 10 to 15 percentage points higher than men. Women typically left just as they were starting families, which happened to coincide with when they were eligible for big promotions. Now, women leave at a rate that is just 2 percentage points higher than men, the firm said.
Two decades after the start of these programs, accounting industry executives say flexibility has become so embedded that many of their employees use these options without a formal arrangement. About 2,800 workers, or more than 5 percent of its roughly 53,800 employees in North and South America, Mexico and Israel have formal, documented flexible arrangements, like Mr. Dalton. Just 20 percent of the employees using flex time are men.
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"It's an intensive career choice, so we had to offer flexibility to make it an attractive career choice," said Karyn Twaronite, a partner at Ernst & Young overseeing diversity and inclusiveness. "We were trying to solve a problem."
Sometimes that is what it takes to effect change. "Some job structures are amenable to change, but operate on the assumption that current arrangements are unchangeable," said Mr. Sweet, who is also a sociology professor at Ithaca College, adding that even shift workers at manufacturers can incorporate options like staggered shifts. "The reality is that the full potentials of flexible work remain largely untested and unverified."
—By Tara Siegel Bernard, The New York Times