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The Boston Globe
Balancing Acts

Flex time, mentoring for women help create a new business culture

By Maggie Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 10/24/04

Beth Petersen, who runs an Austin, Texas, bistro with her husband Paul, worried that it looked too ''mom and pop'' to let a key employee work from home. Then Petersen learned of the telework and other flexible arrangements offered by her mentor, the female head of a multimillion dollar marketing agency. Now, Petersen is helping to make her catering director's home office more professional, rather than persuading her to commute to the restaurant.

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Put together flexibility and mentoring - two big guns in any business arsenal - and you have a powerful combination. And that's just what the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau is doing with a ground-breaking program called ''Flex-Options'' that is tackling one of today's most thorny workplace challenges: how to create a flexible business culture.

The two-year program, which began in 2003, brings together mentors - women entrepreneurs and executives well-schooled in flex arrangements - with female business owners new to flexibility or who want to do more. The mentoring takes place via teleconferences, meetings, or more formal pairings, such as Petersen's close contact with Gay Warren Gaddis, the president and chief executive of T-3, a marketing agency in Austin.

''A lot of sharing and mentoring and coaching takes place,'' says Shinae Chun, director of the Women's Bureau.

So far, 63 mentors have worked with 44 flexibility newcomers in cities in six regions: New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle. Next month, Seattle will be replaced by Kansas City, Mo. And more than 500 women in 43 states, including Massachusetts, have participated in the program's six teleconferences. The bureau plans a Web-based guide to setting up similar mentoring and outreach programs in the community.

Nearly three-quarters of businesses nationwide now offer some flexible work options, according to Hewlitt Associates, and a growing number of employers are aware that flexibility has been linked to increased job satisfaction and commitment.

Still, many employees are scared to try these alternatives, fearing their careers will suffer. And many bosses don't know how to create a flexible workplace, especially where no one worries about where the workers are as long as the work gets done.

''People get what constitutes a flexible work arrangement, but making that leap to a flexible work culture is really the challenge,'' says Judi Casey, director of the New England Work and Family Association.

That's why flex-mentoring is an idea that is taking off. Ernst & Young this year began informal Web-based flexibility mentoring. Through a database, interested employees can contact those already working in alternative arrangements. As in any mentoring program, the off-the-books lessons and advice gleaned from veterans are priceless.

Since January, Gaddis has met with Petersen and with Melinda Maine, publisher of austinwoman magazine, more than a half-dozen times and exchanged e-mails and calls. They talked about Gaddis's commitment to keeping her staff content, even by allowing employees to bring babies and dogs to work.

''You don't lose productivity just because you allow different work options,'' says Gaddis. ''You get a much more devoted, well-rounded and happy staff.'' From Gaddis, Maine learned to trust her staff. ''I'm sitting at my desk, and the wind's whistling through the office, and I'm like, 'where is everybody?''' says Maine. ''You have to have faith.'' In turn, Maine's experience with remote contract workers inspired Gaddis to move beyond telework and allow two employees to work from out of state. ''It made me rethink some things here,'' says Gaddis. ''I'm learning myself.''

For more information, go to the Women's Bureau website: www.dol.gov/wb.

Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at .

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