Flexible options for the rest of us

by Jessica Shambora

We all want flexibility in our workplace. We want to choose the types of projects we take on, and where and when we do our work.

Pattie has written a lot about flexibility on Postcards. Look at all the high-powered women who recently left high-powered jobs: Suhkinder Singh Cassidy, who was president of Asia-Pacific & Latin American operations at Google ; Dawn Hudson, former chief of Pepsi-Cola North America; and Susan Arnold, who quit the presidency at Procter & Gamble . Singh Cassidy and Hudson are opting for more flexible positions. Arnold has not yet announced her next move. Neither has Julie Fasone Holder, who is leaving Dow Chemical, where she is SVP. These women admit they’re not looking for another corner office, at least for now.

Everybody’s reassessing their lives and purposes and careers. Former Microsoft (MSFT) exec John Wood wrote a guest post about the non-profit he now runs, Room to Read. He says that the current economic crisis is making us all think about our legacies sooner than we had anticipated.

Of course not all of us have the option to shift gears. But we still want flexibility. Especially women juggling two jobs–the one they get paid for and the one they don’t at home. Of course, one route to equality–in pay, opportunities and more–is to pressure employers to create more flexible workplaces.

There’s evidence that the workplace really is evolving. And technology gets some credit. “With what we’re seeing with mobility, we’re going to have a totally different concept of what it means to go to work,” says Google chief economist Hal Varian in January’s McKinsey Quarterly. “The work goes to you, and you’re able to deal with your work at any time any place, using the infrastructure that’s now become available.”

Two businesses related to this trend caught my eye. Both were started by professional women looking for flexibility for themselves and others.

Inspire Human Resources founder Jaime Klein said she was struck by the “mindshare on the playgrounds of America.” Klein assembled HR consultants with experience at firms including Goldman Sachs , J.P. Morgan , and Digitas, and helped put them to work on a project basis. Apart from time spent consulting in-house, the consultants work from home. Inspire provides on-demand HR support for high-growth startups like Lawline.com and Fortune 500 companies including New York Life Insurance and American Express.

Klein told me about at least 10 other companies with the same “virtual team” model as Inspire Human Resources. These outfits offer professional services, from financial consulting to manufacturing and efficiency expertise.

Then there are staffing firms that specialize in flexible talent. OnRamps and Flex Paths are two of those.

And Urban Interns is an online job board for small businesses and individuals looking for part-time flexible help. Founders Cari Sommer, a former attorney, and Lauren Porat, previously in strategy at IAC, are both new moms who were looking for flexible help at home. The site is available only in NYC for now, but the duo have plans to expand. What sets it apart? All candidates are college students grads, and employers can filter prospective hires by hours of availability and schedule.

Businesses are looking for flexibility too. Law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom is offering its 1,300 worldwide associates the chance to get paid one-third of their salary to take a year off. Other firms are doing the same to allow employees to take on pro bono work. But Skadden’s attorneys can choose to do whatever they want. The New York Times reported that one associate, Heather Eisenlord, is taking her $80,000 to travel the world and do good.

Of course, struggling employers are pushing part-time, project and contract work–the thrifty alternative to hiring full-time. Let’s hope that full-time work will come back for those who want it. The number of Americans who desire full-time jobs but are working part-time has increased 83% in one year to nine million, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Well, if some of these new vehicles for flexibility stick around, we could have beneficial by-products of the downturn.

P.S. Flexibility in education helps even the gender gap. Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council shows that when flexibility is offered for MBA programs, the gender gap starts to close. Women made up only 30% of the 2008-2009 applicant class for a full-time MBA. For a flexible MBA program, women comprised 37%.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.