The Career Impact of Work-Life Balance

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Flexible work arrangements are increasingly popular. But they do impact careers.

Recent investment bank recruiting ads depict a professional environment that seems worlds away from the unflattering portrayal of Wall Street culture in Michael Lewis's 1989 classic, Liar's Poker. Many are embracing a pro-employee image these days, touting the benefits of telecommuting, flexibility and job sharing. But will employees seeking balance ascend the career ladder as quickly as those who devote their lives to the office? Only time will tell.

UBS advertises "programs and policies in place to accommodate the varied circumstances and preferences" of employees. These include - when they're feasible - flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, job sharing and childcare options. Although Lehman Brothers' website says the majority of employees work traditional hours, the company notes it also offers telecommuting and flex-time.

Appeal vs. impact

The promise of such arrangements is appealing, but the reality may damage careers. More than 60% of 1,320 global executives surveyed by Korn/Ferry International, a worldwide recruitment firm, said that telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers when compared to employees who work in traditional office settings. However, many employees seem unfazed by the potential career threat: almost half of the respondents surveyed would consider a job that involved regular telecommuting. An overwhelming 78% said that telecommuters are equally or more productive than traditional office workers.

Concerns about telecommuting never deterred Kent Warner, managing director for Jeffries & Company, from achieving success. Based in the US in Richmond, Virginia, Warner says he worked in Jeffries' New York office at least twice every week when he first joined the firm in 2000. But as he cultivated a national client base, the need for his continued, regular presence diminished after his first year. "When you are new to a group, you have to invest time capital in person, so people understand your work ethic and who you are. And then you need to deliver on those things," he says. "But once you know people and establish communication links, it's obvious that you know your job or you don't."

Ultimately, Warner's advancement was tied to the relationships he built with clients. "There is no better yardstick for measuring success in investment banking than executing deals - and then multiple deals for the same client," he says. Today, Warner visits the New York office about 10 times per year, though he speaks to his colleagues there between 10 and 15 times a day. His assistant telecommutes from Florida and meets with him in Richmond once each month.

Going mainstream

Career experts believe telecommuting will become a more widespread reality for Wall Street. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that most American workers will change jobs between 10 and 14 times by age 38. "That's a case for telecommuting if there ever was one. It means we have a workforce of people who are changing jobs every year and a half," says Susan Guarneri, president of Career Assessment Goddess, a career-consulting firm in Three Lakes, Wisc.

Work-life balance will not be the sole determinant of telecommuting, Guarneri says. Conducting business globally, across multiple time zones, and contending with increasing employee commuting expenses caused by rising petrol prices, necessitates future reliance on telecommuting, she believes.

As a whole, employers will need to provide remote employees with tools for advancement. "We can leverage telecommuting to our benefit if we know how to do it properly," Guarneri says. Appealing to different personalities and learning styles through technology may be the key to widespread acceptance and success of telecommuting. For example, video cameras set up between employees and workplaces can enhance social interaction. Using audio files may better suit employees who don't synthesize information as well from reading it online. However, some face-time, such as weekly meetings, will still be necessary. "It cannot be 100% virtual," says Guarneri. "There has to be chemistry. Human beings need a visual interaction kind of thing. You're not going to get that virtually."

As with other financial services business, acceptance of telecommuting in investment banking may depend heavily on an employee's success with clients. Marcus M. Brooks, president of PEP Consultants, a banking and brokerage consulting firm in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, delivers services remotely to clients throughout the country after personal, introductory meetings. "It's a proactive approach. I always make sure to call them before they call me," he says. "I want to ensure they're happy with the progress."

Brooks's most successful strategy for serving clients with multiple projects can be embraced from any location: "Just listen to your clients and what their needs are, instead of adhering to a fixed product or strategy," he says. "It's amazing how many times clients will tell you exactly what they need."

Have you had experience with flex-time or telecommuting? How'd it turn out? Post your comment below.