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“Eighty percent of companies say they offer flexibility, but it's a black market topic. You raise it [as an employee] and you're not taken seriously," Annie Dean, former attorney and current entrepreneur, told the New York Times last month. Dean founded Werk, a company dedicated to helping people find flexible work schedules. And while there aren't solid numbers to back up Dean's statement, it rings true to many of us.

In fact, I tell people to ask about flexible work schedules at the negotiation stage—after they've received an offer. Too many people consider the phrase, "I need a flexible schedule" as code for, "I'm a slacker who wants to come in late and leave early."

Women value flexibility far more than men do, primarily because women tend to be the caregivers, for both their own children and their ailing parents and in-laws. Harvard Economics Professor Claudi Goldman studied this issue and found that women are willing to work for less money if a job offers flexibility. It's not that women want less money than men want, it's just that they value flexibility more.

So why don't businesses take it seriously? Is flexibility really a drain on business?

In some cases, yes. If your business requires people to always be available and long hours are the norm, then someone who needs to leave when after school care ends—regardless of what the client needs—should probably not be paid as much. Why? Because someone who has to walk out on a client meeting isn't as valuable as someone who will always be there. That's a solid fact—as much as we'd like to dream that the day will come when we'll all work reasonable hours.

But most jobs aren't like that, and most businesses aren't sustainable if they ask their employees to commit to 24/7 availability. Most jobs can have flexibility—it's just that historically flexibility wasn't possible and wasn't a thing. Providing real flexibility at real salaries will not only improve the gender pay gap, but it will also open your business up to a whole slate of qualified candidates.

So, how do you know if you can embrace a flexible schedule? Answer the following questions.

1) Does everyone have to be physically present every day?

Your knee-jerk reaction might be yes, but do they really? Why? If they aren't client-facing full time, do they have to be there?

2) Does everyone have to work the same 8-hour schedule?

If you're running a factory then yes, you probably do have to be there when the rest of your team is there, but if not, does it matter if Bob comes in at 8:00 A.M. and Steve comes in at 10:00 A.M.? Does it matter of Sue walks out the door every day at 4:00 P.M. but then logs on at 9:00 P.M. and works until 11:00 P.M.?

3) Are you having trouble recruiting?

If you can't find qualified candidates, is it because they lack something or because your business doesn't offer something?

If you think everyone has to be there every day, ask your current employees if they think being able to telecommute occasionally would work. You might be surprised with what they come up with. Heck, there are even doctors who read X-rays from home, rather than at the hospital. Or ask them if they think a four-day week (4 days x 10 hours per week, rather than 5 days x 8 hours per day) might work better. (Caution: California and a few other places require overtime payment for more than 8 hours in one day.)

Most importantly: If you decide flextime schedules aren't an option at your organization, then don't pretend to offer them. Be honest in job interviews, so you'll have people that enjoy a fixed, rigid schedule. However, be prepared to lose out on a lot of great candidates.

Photo: Creative Commons