When she was looking for a new job last year, friends warned Alexandra Jacobs that a major bank would not offer the kind of flexible hours and remote work she'd enjoyed when she worked in the tech sector.
The Royal Bank of Canada, however, heard Jacobs's appeal for flexibility and agreed to terms that fit her busy life. Even as a manager, the single mother now works three days a week from her home in Toronto's Beaches area, and picks up her eight-year-old daughter Lillian almost every afternoon after school.
It's the kind of arrangement that the Royal Bank has made with nearly one-third of its staff. With its flexibility and generous leave provisions, the company is ranked among Canada's top 100 employers .
Its practices are more and more common among companies, experts say, aided by productivity technologies and "hotelling"-type office design, while reflecting a new mindset among staff and managers.
For Jacobs, 47, the global head of employee communications at the bank, her "flextime" and "flexiplace" arrangements mean she can effectively manage a staff of five - each of whom has his or her own flexible hours and varying workplaces - and still be a devoted mom.
"We're no longer talking about work-life balance but work-life integration," Ms. Jacobs says. "The bank knows that the happier I am, the more loyal I'm going to be, and the more productive I'm going to be."
Another Royal Bank employee, Guneet Hansrani, 46, manager of a major branch in Mississauga, will begin a one-year unpaid leave of absence next month to take care of her family's interests. She will travel back and forth to the Punjab in India with her 78-year-old father to wrap up his financial dealings, something she wouldn't have the time to do on a typical vacation.
For Hansrani, who joined the bank as a teller 20 years ago, the option of taking time to focus on family is a blessing. "It allows me some peace of mind," she says, adding that such arrangements ultimately help the bank. "Our clients are going to be looked after if we have happy and productive employees."
Maureen Neglia, a senior consultant in the Toronto offices of Towers Watson, a global human resources consultancy, says that with telework and hotelling increasingly common among companies, flexibility and extended leaves "are no longer something just for the privileged few." Many people seek out flexible companies, especially new recruits and those in the "millennial" generation, she says, and companies that offer more flexibility and generous leave provisions today may have a competitive advantage. "It's actually becoming a differentiator."
There are some pitfalls for companies to avoid, she explains. They should set clear expectations in terms of core work hours, establish deliverables and train bosses to manage virtual workplaces and workforces.
"If an organization hasn't got clear and strict guidelines around employee performance and how they communicate and how they work, and managers are not sufficiently trained on how to support employees in this, it's an absolute disaster," Ms. Neglia says.
Norma Tombari, the Royal Bank of Canada's director of global diversity, who is accountable for workplace flexibility, says that such arrangements with employees are "part of the changing, evolving workplace" and are the key to a satisfied workforce.
"Recruitment and retention and engagement of employees means addressing their diverse needs at different stages of their lives," she says. The bank supports employees and managers in special arrangements. "It's a learning process," she adds.
However, not all work situations are conducive to flexibility.
"You have to be realistic," Ms. Tombari explains, although sometimes it's possible to "manage as you go." Such "flexible flexibility" means managers can make ad hoc arrangements, she says. "It's an investment in collaborative thinking."
Managers have to agree to support, and set expectations for, flexible arrangements, and "focus on the results" of their employees' work, Alexandra Jacobs says. With those employees she manages, she explains, "I pretty much leave it up to them to determine where they can work best." On Mondays and Wednesdays, she comes to a workstation that she books in the new RBC Centre in downtown Toronto. Her own boss, she says, has "extended an incredible amount of trust to me," a practice the bank encourages.
"If you're a high-performance organization, and the RBC is a high-performance organization, a lot of your focus is on results," Ms. Jacobs says.
One of the hazards for employees of working remotely is not being able to turn the work off. "The boundaries are very blurred," Ms. Jacobs says. But it's her choice to work when and where she wants, and of course there are rewards.
"I always think of the look on my daughter's face when she comes out of school and I'm there," she recalls. "She sees that I am making her a priority, but I'm also a professional woman who's engaged in her job and enjoys it."