Flexible work programs are work arrangements wherein employees are given greater scheduling freedom in how they fulfill the obligations of their positions. The most commonplace of these programs is flextime, which gives workers far greater leeway in terms of the time when they begin and end work, provided they put in the total number of hours required by the employer. Other common flexible working arrangements involve telecommuting, job-sharing, and compressed work weeks.
Supporters of flexible work programs hail them as important recognition of the difficulties that many employees have in balancing their family obligations and their work duties, and they note that such programs can make a company more attractive to prospective employees. Critics contend, however, that while flexible employment initiatives do attempt to redress some long-time inequities in the work life-family life balance, ill-considered plans can have a deleterious impact on a company.
PRIMARY FLEXIBLE WORK PROGRAMS
Flexible work arrangements can take any number of forms, from basic flextime programs to innovative child-and elder-care programs.
- Flextime—This is a system wherein employees choose their starting and quitting times from a range of available hours. These periods are usually at either end of a "core" time during which most company business takes place. Formerly regarded as a rare, cutting-edge workplace arrangement, flextime is now commonly practiced in a wide variety of industries.
- Compressed Work Week—Under this arrangement, the standard work week is compressed into fewer than five days. The most common incarnation of the compressed work week is one of four 10-hour days. Other options include three 12-hour days or arrangements in which employees work 9- or 10-hour days over two weeks and are compensated with an extra day or two of time off during that time.
- Flexplace—This term encompasses various arrangements in which an employee works from home or some other non-office location. Telecommuting is the most commonly practiced example of this type of flexible employment.
- Job Sharing—Under these arrangements, two people voluntarily share the duties and responsibilities of one full-time position, with both salary and benefits of that position prorated between the two individuals.
- Work Sharing—These programs are increasingly used by companies that wish to avoid layoffs. It allows businesses to temporarily reduce hours and salary for a portion of their workforce while maintaining the number of employees.
- Expanded Leave—This option gives employees greater flexibility in terms of requesting extended periods of time away from work without losing their rights as employees. Expanded leave, which can be granted on either a paid or unpaid basis, is used for a variety of reasons, including sabbaticals, education, community service, family problems, and medical care (the latter two reasons are now largely covered by the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act).
- Phased Retirement—Under these arrangements, the employee and employer agree to a schedule wherein the employee's full-time work commitments are gradually reduced over a period of months or years.
- Partial Retirement—These programs allow older employees to continue working on a part time basis, with no established end date.
- Work and Family Programs—These programs are still relatively rare, although some larger companies have reported good results with pilot initiatives in this area. These programs are ones in which employers provide some degree of assistance to their employees in the realms of child-care and elder-care. The best-known of these programs are in-house facilities providing care for the children of employees, but even basic flex-time programs can ease child-care logistics for employees.
ADVANTAGES OF FLEXIBLE WORK PROGRAMS
Defenders of flexible work initiatives point to the competitive advantages that such programs bring to companies that offer these sorts of programs. Perhaps the single most cited reason for introducing a flexible work environment is employee retention. Indeed, many businesses contend that the recent trend toward flextime and other programs has made it necessary for them to introduce their own programs or risk losing valued employees. "Another business argument for flexible work arrangements is that they allow companies to match the peaks and valleys of activity," wrote Elizabeth Sheley in HRMagazine. "More organizations have shifted their focus to how potential changes in schedule will affect the product. Reduced absenteeism, though often overlooked, is also a legitimate business rationale; flexible options not only strengthen commitment, but also give employees more time to handle the very situations that sometimes lead to absenteeism."
Proponents also note that, in many respects, flexible work programs provide a way for businesses to increase employee loyalty without resorting to making fundamental changes in their operations. Indeed, Sheley observed that "the most popular flexible work options are those that involve the least change. Flex-time and compressed work weeks, for example, call for the same number of hours, at the same workplace, as in traditional work arrangements."
In addition, some supporters of flexible work arrangements argue that such programs can actually have a positive impact on the productivity of employees. They contend that employees who are better able to attend to family needs through flex-time are more likely to be contented and productive, while good employees who telecommute may get even more work done if they are freed up from office interruptions.
Business can also use flexible programs to address institutional problems. For instance, a small- or mid-sized business that is crammed into a small facility or office may want to explore telecommuting programs in order to relieve the situation without resorting to an expensive relocation or expansion. Finally, proponents say the flexible work programs can be beneficial to companies by enhancing their public image and expanding the number of hours during which customers can be serviced.
DISADVANTAGES OF FLEXIBLE WORK PROGRAMS
Flexible work programs have many apparent advantages, but critics point out that ill-conceived programs can have a negative impact on businesses, and they add that even good programs often present challenges that a business has to address.
First of all, business owners and managers need to recognize that flexible work arrangements are not always appropriate for all people, jobs, or industries. Telecommuting and other "flexplace" arrangements, for example, can be disastrous (or at the very least a productivity drain) if used by employees who are unwilling or unable to put in a full day of work amid the non-work temptations (television, pleasure reading, housecleaning, etc.) of a home setting. Other companies, meanwhile, find that employees "flex" in and out of the business at such different hours that overhead costs increase, customer service suffers (i.e., no one comes in until 9:30 a.m., a state of affairs that forces customers and vendors to cool their heels until then), and manufacturing output suffers. This latter factor makes flex-time a difficult fit for many manufacturing facilities. In a manufacturing setting, many of the factory operations depend on a single set of operational hours across operations. When one is dealing with a firm the uses a work-cell team manufacturing concept, flex-time is not an option.
Critics also contend that flex programs often leave managers in exceedingly difficult situations. "Far too often, flex is embraced '¶ for its 'family-friendly' aspects long before the corporate support needed to manage it takes root," wrote Martha H. Peak in Management Review. "In these companies, flex policies are outlined in the employee manual but implementation is left up to individual managers. Then, when managers try to implement these programs, they discover that to be fair, flex requires them to treat different employees differently."
Finally, many observers argue that businesses launch flexible work plans without adequate preparation. "I know that flex is a basic element of family-friendly and that family-friendly is a requisite for competitive companies," stated Peak. "But it takes more than a statement in the policy manual to institutionalize flex. It takes new methodologies to measure job success and investment in technologies to keep employees in constant communication."
INSTITUTING A FLEXIBLE WORK ENVIRONMENT
Business experts and companies that have instituted flexible work programs offer a variety of recommendations to businesses that are pondering a move to a flexible work environment.
Research the pros and cons of instituting a flexible work program in your company. Every company's needs and operating environment are different; just because a flex program worked for a neighboring business, that does not necessarily mean that it will work for your company. Conversely, a program that fails in another firm may work in yours. Detailed research into the needs and pressures of both the operations and the employees of each business, then, is a necessary component of any decision. So is an honest assessment of the qualities of the business's work force.
A company that is blessed with a work force of dedicated and conscientious employees is far more likely to be productive in a flex environment than is one that is saddled with a heavy sprinkling of unmotivated employees. A thorough and honest assessment of a company's existing workforce as well as future labor needs is important in determining whether a flexible work program is likely to succeed for that company.
Create guidelines and systems of flex program administration that: 1) address all business needs, and 2) stand up to tests of fairness and comprehensiveness. The process used to create guidelines for a flexible work program should include steps to ensure that new policies are compatible with existing company objectives. Issues like eligibility, application processes, reversibility, and changes to employee status should be plainly addressed. Finally, companies should formalize guidelines to head off complaints about favoritism or unfair treatment. Because a balanced and equitable treatment of all employees is important, the terminology used in the formal guidelines should be as general as possible—family obligations may be used instead of child-care obligations, for example.
Employees should be educated about policies and feel comfortable using them. This can only happen if the company actively promotes the program. Employees need to know that participation in such initiatives will not hurt their career. Indeed, HRMagazine noted that a mid-1990s report by the Catalyst research organization indicated that this can be a significant deterrent: "Many of the options for flexible scheduling are perceived as being bad for one's career by management and by co-workers who have more traditional working arrangements. A job-share partner or part-time employee cannot be as committed, the thinking goes. A positive experience with less than full-time work depends on the cultural values of the employee's organization. In some organizations, people who have taken less traditional schedules have been perceived as committing career suicide."
Employees are not the only workers who need to be reassured. Companies instituting flex work plans must also develop resource materials and training programs for managers. In fact, in many respects, managers of personnel and projects are the people who must make the biggest adjustment to a flexible work environment. "Workplace flexibility requires managers to develop a new set of skills," wrote Sheley. "Managers used to manage by sight, and defined work by hours on site. If a worker was in the office for eight hours, the boss assumed that person did eight hours of work." With flex-time and other developments, however, managers need to develop new skills that emphasize work flow and productivity. Managers and employees will need to be flexible themselves in order to make these arrangement successful.
Ultimately, a flexible work program is only worth keeping if it benefits your company's financial, strategic, and production goals. A key to making sure that those needs are met is to maintain control of the program. Employees and work teams can be very helpful in shaping flexible work guidelines, but business owners and managers should be wary of handing over too much control. Indeed, they need to make sure that business considerations remain paramount in any discussion of flex-time and other options, and that ultimate control over flexible work programs rests with them. Dysfunctional work teams, for example, will reduce flex-time to a shambles if they are left to institute and supervise it themselves.
Businesses should evaluate their flex work programs on a regular basis. Too many businesses introduce workplace flexibility programs that are flawed, but rather than review the program and make the necessary corrections, they throw up their arms and ask their personnel (managers and eligible employees alike) to reshape their responsibilities, priorities, and planning to match the flawed program. Other companies launch good programs that lose their effectiveness over time because of neglect. Instead, business managers and owners need to practice continuous improvement in their workplace flexibility programs, just as they do in other aspects of their operations. "Fine-tune the program," wrote Sheley. "The evaluation process will provide at least some of the information necessary to make the adjustments that will make a workplace flexibility program of optimum benefit to both the company and its employees."
CONTINUED CHANGE IN FLEXIBLE WORK PROGRAMS
In today's business world, flexible employment staples such as flextime and telecommuting continue to grow, in large measure because businesses that introduce them continue to prosper while simultaneously improving the quality of life of their employees. Looking ahead, it seems clear that flexible work programs will continue to be used and be used more frequently. With the rise of the Internet and rapid spread of high-speed connections to the Internet in homes and offices alike, the tools necessary to make flexible work programs successful are multiplying. Creating a flexible work program suitable for a particular business and company will continue to be an individual endeavor but one that is made ever easier with new technologies and communication tools.
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