Let’s talk for a minute about how awesome the Internet is. Last month, when I wrote about the pitfalls of flexible work arrangements, it happened to catch the eye of FlexJob’s PR manager who reached out to me about the post. After a few emails and with my Work | Life | Mom series on my mind, I decided to ask if Sara Sutton Fell, FlexJob’s founder and CEO as well as a mom of two, would consider being profiled on Mommy Sanest.
I assumed it was a long shot, but they pretty much immediately said yes, to which I responded: o_O (because nothing says professional like an emoticon).
If you’re not familiar with Sara Sutton Fell’s story, it’s a good one. An entrepreneur from a young age, Sara started a company in college called Job Direct, which she and her co-founder sold in 2000. Sara went on to other professional endeavors, but in 2007, she found herself looking for work that would allow her to have a flexible schedule.
Did I mention that Sara was pregnant at the time?
When she struggled to find legitimate flexible work, she did what any pregnant woman would do: She started a company that would solve this dilemma for job seekers by connecting them to real companies offering professional opportunities with flexible work benefits.
FlexJobs was born.
I’ve actually been a member of FlexJobs since last year, and now that I’ve quit my full-time marketing position, I plan to actively use the site to find contract and project work. I highly recommend that anyone looking for telecommuting, part-time, short-term, or contract positions check out the site.
As for Sara, she thoughtfully and thoroughly answered my questions about her family and work life, how she balances it all, and what advice she has for those of you seeking flexible work arrangements. I couldn’t have hoped for a better profile to kick off my Work | Life | Mom series.
Lou: Tell us about your family.
Sara Sutton Fell: I’m a proud mom to two young boys, Harrison and Palmer. While I work from home, my husband works outside of the house, but I have our chocolate lab Derby to keep me company in my home office.
You started Flexjobs when you were pregnant because you couldn’t find flexible work opportunities and kept running into scams. What were some of the challenges of starting a company while pregnant? Were there benefits to this timing?
I often joke that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend someone start a company when they’re pregnant! Probably the biggest benefit to this timing was that it proved that FlexJobs must be a REALLY good idea, because I kept with it even through all the sleepless nights and stress that being a new mom brings along. The challenges were exactly what you’d think–trying to balance my time between a newborn and a new company, all while giving myself a little time, too. Luckily I had tremendous help from my husband and my own mom, which made it all possible. Easy? No. Possible? Yes.
What makes FlexJobs different than other job search websites?
FlexJobs isn’t your typical job search website because we don’t feature any advertising or other clutter on our site. Instead, FlexJobs members are greeted with a clean, ad-free, scam-free, screened database of flexible jobs. In exchange for our 100% commitment to, and focus on, job seekers, we ask for a small monthly or yearly fee from our users. It’s not typical to charge job seekers as a job board, but we truly believe — and have proven through our success — that we’re able to provide a better job experience because of it. FlexJobs aims to make job searching easier, faster, and safer for job seekers.
Another big difference is that we have a client services team for our job seekers. Monday through Friday, job seekers can call, email, or chat with our client services team, ask questions, and get help with their job search questions. It’s not often with any service today that you can call and speak to a human being with no hassle!
What flexible benefits do you offer your employees, and do you take advantage of these benefits as the CEO?
We offer pretty much every type of flexibility you can imagine. All of our 53 staffers work from home, and the vast majority have flexible schedules and can set their own hours (except client services, which needs to operate on a set schedule). We offer full-time and part-time roles, and hire for freelance contracts. I definitely take advantage of our flexible work options! I work from home myself, and while I keep fairly regular business hours, I don’t feel guilty switching up my schedule to care for sick kiddos, or attend to other family and life issues. And our staff know that they are free to do the same!
Can you describe your “typical” work day?
Most days I work from around 9am to around 6pm, from the converted office above our garage. Earlier in the morning, I’m able to help our kids get ready for school and drop them off. When the weather is nice, I’ll get out for a bike ride, and I attend a weekly yoga class. And I’m lucky enough to work from home, so during the growing season, I can make a fresh salad from our veggie garden for lunch. But, as I mentioned, I feel able to switch up that schedule to meet the needs of the day, both for work and for life. I might have an early morning interview with a local TV station, or take a break in the afternoon to attend my sons’ school activities. I know I can shift my hours to later in the evening to make up the difference.
How do you and your partner manage childcare?
We have a great team of babysitters to help us when our kids aren’t in school. When they were very young, before they were in school full-time, our sitters did a great job of caring for them while my husband and I worked. We also take full advantage of summer camps. My advice for anyone with young children is to have multiple childcare options in case something falls through. Trying to work from home and watch your kids at the same time simply isn’t fair, for your kids or your job.
How do you and your partner manage the “business” of running a household?
Google calendar! We have a color-coded shared calendar that, to anyone else, probably looks like a child’s art project more than a method of running a household, but it works really well for us. We each have our own calendar, and share items with each other to stay on track. I’m happy to say that we definitely share the load when it comes to chores, cooking, etc. We work really well as a team.
If you could change one thing about how you balance work with other areas of your life, what would be?
Overall, things work really well for us. Especially because I really see work-life balance as just that — a balancing act that will tip back and forth depending on the needs of the day. The key is to not let things tip too far in one direction or the other. I’m probably not the only one who struggles with this, but I’d love to be better at the ability to let the little things go. There’s always going to be that one last toy that needs to be picked up, or that one last email that needs to be sent, but I often remind myself that if it’s not critical, it can be let go.
Finding a job with significant flexibility often means giving something up—whether it be taking a pay cut or giving up career advancement momentum. Do you think it’s possible to keep a career on track and find the flexibility you need, or do you always have to give something up?
Yes! There are so many surveys that show what people would give up to get more work flexibility, but I try to show people that you don’t need to give things up! One of the biggest misconceptions is that telecommuting jobs pay less than in-office jobs, but from the research we’ve done, we’ve found that’s not the case. Salaries for telecommuting and office jobs are right in line with one other (accounting for the industry, location, experience level, etc.).
One of the keys to keeping your career on track with a flexible job is to be proactive with your manager. Don’t wait for them to contact you–reach out and show them what you’re working on. Because you’re a bit separated from them, physically, you need to proactively communicate your value to the company rather than waiting to be recognized. Doing this regularly will help keep your career on track regardless of where or when you work.
You’re a successful entrepreneur, having started a business before you even graduated from college. Other than starting Flexjobs as an answer to finding legitimate flexible work, did motherhood change your career ambitions or how you view work?
It didn’t change my ambition, but it certainly changed how I wanted to work. Becoming a mother made me realize how vital work-life balance is to a healthy and happy life. I still want to be professionally active, and it’s become really important for me to show my two boys that a mom can have a successful career just like a dad can. I love work, but having a family also showed me that to continue loving work, you need to balance it with other obligations and fun things in life!
Why do you think some companies are hesitant to offer flexible work arrangements? Do you have advice for employees who want to talk to their supervisors about considering these options?
There’s a bit of the fear of the unknown. Managers are used to seeing employees at work, but with telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements, you have to change up your management strategies to rely less on seeing employees, and more on understanding exactly what they’re working on regularly. If you want to talk to your supervisor about flexible work options, I highly recommend planning your proposal in advance. Be sure to demonstrate all the ways flexible work benefits your manager and the company (you’ll be more productive, you’ll require less real estate and office equipment, you’ll take fewer sick days, etc.). And give them a clear picture of where, when, and how you’ll be working. Tell them about your well-equipped home office, schedule a regular weekly call to go over your projects, and promise to email them every day with status updates on your work. The more you can do to assuage their fears, the more receptive they’ll be.
A big thank you to Sara Sutton Fell as well as Kathy Gardner, PR Manager at FlexJobs.
You might also be interested in checking out the next interview in the Work | Life | Mom series with Abby Brennan, Owner of Brennan Spa.