If knowledge workers spend most of their days pecking at keyboards, what difference does it make where that keyboard is located? And what difference does it make whether they’re doing that work at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m? Flexible hours are an increasingly popular way for companies to offer cost-free perks to their employees. Ideally, workers will be able to work on a schedule that is convenient for them, and employers will have a happier, more productive workforce. But making the arrangement work can be difficult, especially when new policies clash with entrenched workplace cultures that discourage taking time off or working outside of normal hours.

“Employees don’t understand it. They don’t know what to choose, so you don’t get the benefits on either side,” says Sophie Wade, a business consultant and expert on workplace flexibility. Wade, owner of the New York-based company Flexcel, specializes in helping companies and professionals navigate the pitfalls and reap the benefits of ditching the old 9-to-5 office-bound work paradigm.

Wade will speak at the National Association of Women Business Owners on Tuesday, November 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Edison. The cost to attend “Managing for Success in the Future of Work: Millennials, Careers, Flex and More” is $45 ($40 for NAWBO members.) For more information, visit www.nawbocentraljersey.com or call 732-703-6616.

Wade says trends in computer technology and workforce demographics are driving a shift toward more flexible hours. She says many younger workers are skeptical of the old paradigm of success being driven by putting in long hours at the office, regardless of how much was accomplished during those hours.

“It’s driven by technology and millennials,” Wade says. “Technology is driving a lot of the changes that are happening. When you had desktop computers in the office, everybody had to go to the office to do the work, or to the factories because the machines were there. But when you have a lot of technology and smartphones and laptops, that changes the game.”

Non-standard hours are common in the tech industry, where many workers prefer to come in late in the morning and stay late into the night. Other alternative work options include working from home several days a week, working four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, or just shifting the hours to suit the needs of family. Wade says that any successful flexible work policy takes into account the different preferences of the employees.

“Flexibility is a mindset as well as a policy,” Wade says. “Blanket policies don’t work because different people have different needs.” For example, someone with young children who lives in a small apartment would likely not get much out of working at home. How much can someone accomplish when a toddler is tugging on their trouser leg for attention? Others might have a peaceful home environment but dislike the isolation.

There is a dark side to “flexibility.” For low-wage or freelance workers, flexibility can mean working at the whims of their employers, never knowing their schedule very far in advance. Earlier this year New York State warned 13 retailers including Target and the Gap that their use of using “on-call” scheduling software might violate labor laws. The software forecasts how busy stores will be and tells workers whether or not to report for their shifts mere hours before they started, leaving “too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay,” the letter said.

On-demand freelancing services such as Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk also show the double-edged nature of flexibility. Uber classifies its drivers as independent contractors. They can set their own work hours but don’t get the benefits and protections traditionally associated with full-time jobs. For people working such pseudo-jobs, flexibility can go hand in hand with instability.

Wade says some employers are being irresponsible with their workers’ scheduling. “There is severe abuse of hourly workers,” Wade says. “The private sector has not stepped up to the plate to take care of workers in a way that is appropriate.”

But in situations where workers have more power in the employer-employee relationship — white collar and skilled workers for example — flexibility has worked to the benefit of both sides. “It works well where there is strong trust and a reciprocal relationship,” Wade says.

Wade grew up in Britain, where her parents worked for the BBC. She spent much of her childhood traveling, especially in Hong Kong, and she says her views of different customs around the world taught her that almost everything about human interaction depends on the cultural setting. “In China spitting was totally OK,” she says. “Women would just burp in your face, like whoa. You thought things like that were kind of objective, but they’re not. It’s all cultural.”

Wade majored in Oriental Studies at Oxford, specializing in China, and then went to work in corporate finance, working in a series of high-level technology and media-related jobs for Yahoo and SVP Network Partners before going into business on her own as a consultant.

She left her last full-time job at ING because she didn’t have enough time to spend with her two young children. She discovered the joys of a flexible work environment when she went to work recruiting hedge fund managers at a company owned by a friend. “I thought, I know a lot of people like me who have kids. I thought it was a women’s issue, but I started thinking, it wasn’t a women’s issue, it’s a flexibility issue.”

Wade’s early insight about the impact of culture has affected the rest of her career. Today her goal is to improve work by improving working culture, making it a win-win situation for the employer and employee.

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