An Interview with Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs | Work Life Mom

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).
Sara Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of Flexjobs | Work Life Mom
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.

Sara Sutton Fell, Found and CEO of FlexJobs talks motherhood, ambition, and how to talk to your supervisor about flexible work options.

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.

3 Pitfalls of Flexible Work Arrangements & How to Avoid Them

In early spring 2013, I formally requested a flexible work arrangement from my employer. I had been back at work for three months following maternity leave, and I had been using vacation time to take off one day a week. I was hoping for an agreement that would allow me to go part time for at least a year.

My request was not unprecedented. My organization has a policy that allows full-time employees to go part time for up to two years (with a reduction in salary) while maintaining full-time status. I’ve seen many managers agree to part-time schedules, flexible hours, and work-from-home arrangements. But in my case, my request was denied, and my supervisor offered me the option to work from home one day a week instead.

I’ve reflected on this situation a lot over the past year and a half and how I could have approached the request differently. I’ve also watched many of my mom friends navigate various flexible work arrangements with their employers. The idea that we can find a middle ground between full-time stay-at-home mom and full-time work-outside-the-home mom fascinates me—on the surface, it seems like these arrangements could be an answer to many issues families face when trying to balance work and life.

But getting management to think differently about what works for their employees, particularly those who are mothers, fathers, or caretakers in some other capacity, can be tough. And we’re still in relatively uncharted territory—the options for flexible arrangements vary wildly based on corporate culture, job function, direct management, and of course, politics.

I plan to write about working mothers (and really, who isn’t a working mother?) a lot in the coming year, but I figured I’d start with those of us in more traditional work situations who have been granted flex time. The hard part is over, right? Not really. Because many companies are new to flexible work arrangements and often don’t have overarching policies about these options, navigating your new situation can be tricky.

I’m not in human resources. I wrote this based on my own experiences and listening to issues friends were running into. But I decided to go one step further and get an HR professional to weigh in. Hopefully it will be helpful if you are (or happen to find yourself) in one of these sticky situations. There are certainly more pitfalls to discuss, but these are the three I hear about most.

Working moms are often looking for flexible work arrangements--part time schedules, flex hours, or the ability to work from home. These special arrangements can make it easier to balance the demands of working with running a household and taking care of children, but can also lead to sticky situations wtih coworkers. Here are three pitfalls of flexible working arrangments and how to avoid them. Given two thumbs up by an HR professional! Pitfall 1: You have a part-time schedule with a full-time workload.

Hurray! Your boss agreed to let you work part time. You got exactly what you asked for… right? Maybe not. While your boss might be totally fine with you taking a pay cut and being out of the office, she might not be prepared to lighten your load. This usually comes down to resources—just because you’re part time now doesn’t mean they’re prepared to hire someone to pick up the slack.

Avoid this flex-time pitfall: You don’t want to be paid half your salary to do the same amount of work. When you start discussions with your supervisor about a flexible arrangement, outline how you see your workload changing. Recommend solutions—an intern, a junior coworker looking to grow, a part-time hire, or a job share are all possibilities, or maybe there’s a more efficient way of doing business that’s been overlooked.

Give some thought to your bottom line. Maybe compensation won’t exactly equal hours worked all of the time—but if you’ve been salaried, you’re not paid extra for those busy periods when you’re in the office upwards of 40 hours a week. While you shouldn’t do 100 percent of the work at 50 percent of the pay, maybe you feel comfortable if your workload creeps closer to 60 percent some of the time. You could also discuss a situation with your boss where you reduce your hours during slow periods to compensate for busy weeks. Finding a balance may not be completely fair, but being home half the time while keeping your job might be worth it. You have to determine where the line is for you.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a situation where you know you’ll end up doing more than you’re fairly compensated for, a more realistic arrangement might be that you work from home a few days a week rather than an actual reduction in your hours (and therefore salary).

Pitfall 2: Your co-workers are giving you serious side-eye.

Hurray! You’ve been given the go-ahead to work from home twice a week. You got exactly what you asked for… right? Well, kind of, except that your officemates are acting like you’re no longer pulling your weight on that major team project—regardless of whether or not you actually are.

Avoid this flex-time pitfall: Your coworkers’ ill-will could be due to a lot of factors—they might think you’re getting special treatment or maybe a similar request of theirs was denied. Or they might simply not be a fan of “special” arrangements.

Avoid this interoffice angst by heading it off at the pass. If you’re working with people on an ongoing initiative, tell them upfront about your new work arrangement. Make sure they understand your hours, how they can reach you, and that your work on the team won’t be affected. Over-communicate to these coworkers for the first few weeks of your new arrangement so they see that you’re available and not dropping any balls. If it’s just a question of their comfort level, this strategy should help your relationships return to normal pretty quickly.

Maybe the awkwardness is coming from a coworker who feels there was favoritism or that a flex-time policy is not being implemented fairly across the board. If they confide in you or make a snarky remark about your situation, you can site the policy and suggest they talk to human resources or their direct supervisor if they are interested in a similar arrangement. Beyond that, it’s not your problem, and hopefully they’ll get over it.

If your coworkers continue to give you the cold shoulder, there’s not much you can do, except your job. Haters gonna hate. Maintain your professionalism and don’t give them any ammunition when it comes to thinking your work is suffering. If they become outwardly hostile, go to your manager or human resources.

Pitfall 3: Boundaries are not respected.

Hurray! Your supervisor has signed off on a schedule that allows you to get in and leave early so that you can pick your child up on time. You got exactly what you asked for… right? In theory, but your coworkers (and maybe even your boss) seem to conveniently forget that you’re in the office from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. when they regularly schedule you for meetings at 4:00 p.m.

Avoid this flex-time pitfall: It’s probably an oversight and a little communication on your part will probably go a long way toward remedying this situation. Make your coworkers aware of your new schedule—send them an email with your hours, and if necessary, a polite reminder from time to time. Block off your calendar when you are not in the office. Respond to meeting requests scheduled for hours you’ll be out with suggestions for new times. Eventually they’ll get the message.

From time to time, your flexible work arrangement may require you to be flexible too. Don’t rearrange your life for every random 30-minute chitchat, but make a strategic exception every now and then to show that you’re a team player and able recognize when something is really important or immovable for other reasons. Your coworkers and boss will appreciate it; just make sure they’re still respectful of your schedule overall.

What about you? Do you have a flexible work arrangement that allows you to better balance work and home? Has this situation worked out for you, or have you run into some of these (or other) pitfalls?