Thursday, May. 14, 2009

We're Getting Off the Ladder

On the worst days, Chris Keehn used to go 24 hours without seeing his daughter with her eyes open. A soft-spoken tax accountant in Deloitte's downtown Chicago office, he hated saying no when she asked for a ride to preschool. By November, he'd had enough. "I realized that I can have control of this," he says with a small shrug. Keehn, 33, met with two of the firm's partners and his senior manager, telling them he needed a change. They went for it. In January, Keehn started telecommuting four days a week, and when Kathryn, 4, starts T-ball this summer, he will be sitting along the baseline.

In this economy, Keehn's move might sound like hopping onto the mommy track — or off the career track. But he's actually making a shrewd move. More and more, companies are searching for creative ways to save — by experimenting with reduced hours or unpaid furloughs or asking employees to move laterally. The up-or-out model, in which employees have to keep getting promoted quickly or get lost, may be growing outmoded. The changing expectations could persist after the economy reheats. Companies are increasingly supporting more natural growth, letting employees wend their way upward like climbing vines. It's a shift, in other words, from a corporate ladder to the career-path metaphor long preferred by Deloitte vice chair Cathy Benko: a lattice. (See pictures of cubicle designs submitted to The Office.)

At Deloitte, each employee's lattice is nailed together during twice-a-year evaluations focused not just on career targets but also on larger life goals. An employee can request to do more or less travel or client service, say, or to move laterally into a new role — changes that may or may not come with a pay cut. Deloitte's data from 2008 suggest that about 10% of employees choose to "dial up" or "dial down" at any given time. Deloitte's Mass Career Customization (MCC) program began as a way to keep talented women in the workforce, but it has quickly become clear that women are not the only ones seeking flexibility. Responding to millennials demanding better work-life balance, young parents needing time to share child-care duties and boomers looking to ease gradually toward retirement, Deloitte is scheduled to roll out MCC to all 42,000 U.S. employees by May 2010. Deloitte executives are in talks with more than 80 companies working on similar programs.

Not everyone is on board. A 33-year-old Deloitte senior manager in a southeastern office, who works half-days on Mondays and Fridays for health reasons and requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record, says one "old school" manager insisted on scheduling meetings when she wouldn't be in the office. "He was like, 'Yeah, I know we have the program,'" she recalls, "'but I don't really care.'"

Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg admits he's still struggling to convert "nonbelievers," but says they are the exceptions. The recession provides an incentive for companies to design more lattice-oriented careers. Studies show telecommuting, for instance, can help businesses cut real estate costs 20% and payroll 10%. What's more, creating a flexible workforce to meet staffing needs in a changing economy ensures that a company will still have legs when the market recovers. Redeploying some workers from one division to another — or reducing their salaries — is a whole lot less expensive than laying everyone off and starting from scratch.

Young employees who dial down now and later become managers may reinforce the idea that moving sideways on the lattice doesn't mean getting sidelined. "When I saw other people doing it," says Keehn, "I thought I could try." As the compelling financial incentives for flexibility grow clearer, more firms will be forced to give employees that chance. Turns out all Keehn had to do was ask.

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