Twice a week, Phil Ward arrives at his Fort Lauderdale law office earlier than usual and plans his day knowing he wants to watch his son’s lacrosse practice at 6:30 p.m. If his wife can’t drop his son off at practice, Ward does some extra maneuvering of his schedule to leave his office earlier. He might work through lunch or log on later in the evening.
“A lot of dads feel like I do, that its important to be out there,” Ward says. “I don’t have to ask anyone if it’s OK to leave early. As a lawyer, if you are productive, you do have the flexibility.”
Men often are an afterthought in conversations about workplace flexibility, but in their own informal way, many men like Ward are exercising it. Unlike working mothers who push for formal flexible work arrangements, working dads are using flexibility under the radar, working at home as needed to care for a sick child or shifting their hours to coach their child’s sports team.
How Men Flex, a newly released report commissioned by Working Mother, shows that seven in 10 men enjoy the ability to influence their schedule and do so without fear of negative consequences. But only 29 percent report that their flexible work schedule is a formal arrangement that repeats week to week. Men “flex” mostly as needed.
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To better understand how men are navigating the flexible work and home terrain, the Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI), with support from Ernst & Young, surveyed 2,000 men and women about the impact of “flexing” on their lives. Researchers discovered that working dads, whose spouses now work too, increasingly want and need flexibility in their schedules as they partake in the juggling act once considered the exclusive domain of women.
For dads like Todd Goodwin, a vice president in information management for American Express in New York, flexibility is fluid, the researchers found. Goodwin told them he shifts his work hours as needed to accommodate pediatrician appointments or soccer games for daughters Tyler, 15 and Madison, 12. He believes as more male leaders are becoming parents, they can relate to his request to leave by a certain time one day or work from home a couple of days one week if needed. “We’re all trying to manage the same work-family balance.”
Others like Mike Syers, who now shares custody of his 12-year-old daughter, Holly, the flexibility requires structure. Syers, a partner and practice leader for transaction advisory services at Ernst & Young in New York, appreciates that his accounting firm has a culture that accommodates flex.
After separating from his partner of 23 years, Syers has had to get comfortable using flexibility to have dinner with his daughter one or two nights a week and pick her up from school at 3 p.m. Fridays when its his weekend with her. “I’m not working less hours. I am working differently … working my schedule around my other commitments,” Syers explains.
As a manager of teams, Syers says he is open with staff about why he will have to review their work papers from home later or reschedule a meeting. “Just saying I have a conflict or it doesn’t work with my schedule, doesn’t set the right example. Flexibility works best when there is open communication.”
Like women, men with access to flexibility are more likely to say they are happy at work, productive, loyal and have good relationships with co-workers. They also report some flexible arrangements work better than others. Of the men surveyed, most said they prefer a mix of working from home and the office.
The most popular option was working in the office full-time but occasionally from home, which was chosen by 25 percent of those surveyed. Second was working from home one to two days a week, which was chosen by 23 percent. Fathers who work from home five days a week are the least happy, the study found.
Jose Hernandez-Solaun, president of a Miami real estate firm, notices that most men who need informal flexibility — in jobs where it is possible — negotiate it on the fly, and get it. Yet, “flex” comes paired with expectations, he says. “If I need you to produce spreadsheets and a presentation by Friday and you ask to leave early because you need to be with your kids, you better produce that information. It’s really about accountability.”
Hernandez-Solaun, a father of young children, says the expectations are two-sided: men expect leeway in their schedule and, in return, bosses expect a certain level of availability — even at home or on vacation. “Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Going beyond informal flexibility gets trickier for men. Formal arrangements — such as a scaled back work schedule, telecommuting from home or leeway in starting times — can create the impression that the employees aren’t fully committed. They also may involve reduced hours or pay without a corresponding change in workload, experts say.
There is a real fear of the stigma, too. “The No.1 concern … is that men feel the moment they step out or step back, they become dispensable. That’s the greatest insecurity of every man I know,” says Mike Tomas, a South Florida entrepreneur.
Regardless of how men “flex,” those who do so — even informally — report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships with their children.
Ezra Katz, owner of a 34-year-old Miami real estate firm, says the workplace, particularly small business, long has recognized fathers’ interest in more involved parenting. Katz says most bosses and co-workers are understanding, unless flexibility is abused or communication breaks down. “Family life and business do mix — if it’s a team effort.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman is an independent business columnist who writes on work life issues. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.worklifebalancingact.com.