With flexible work arrangements on the rise, saying yes to some employees and no to others is a real management headache. Here's a form that keeps the process fair -- and efficient
What's the number one issue for employees trying to balance work and personal life? Hint: it's not on-site child care. Flextime -- broadly put, the alternative work arrangements that allow workers more control over their scheduling -- consistently tops the list.
"There's still a sense it's something you do at the risk of your career," says Charles Rodgers, a principal of Work/Family Directions, a $50-million provider of referral services for work-and-family issues.
So flextime is a career killer? Consider the case of Virginia Daley. She recently filed a suit against her former employer, Aetna Life & Casualty, alleging she was wrongfully terminated because after returning from maternity leave she asked to work at home one day a week. In a surprising move the judge in the case directed Aetna, well-known for its family-friendly programs, to survey its 2,000 employees who have alternative work arrangements, to uncover any inconsistencies in Aetna's flextime policies. The case may prove to be an isolated example, but it reminds employers of the importance of administering flextime equitably.
Work/Family Directions does not share Aetna's problem, but it is already confronting the fairness issue head-on. Last fall the Boston company introduced a "Flexible Work Option Request" form to its 300-odd employees in a bid to give structure to the squishy process of handling flextime requests. Applicants answer questions that elicit descriptions about their desired work arrangements and, more important, about how their proposed schedules will benefit the company. The form deliberately does not ask the reason for the request, so the request is easier to approve or deny strictly on business grounds. "You want to get your staff to think about flexibility not just as a way to accommodate people but as a way to get good business results," says Rodgers.
Removing the "accommodation mentality" also makes asking for flextime less awkward for employees. "I have no lingering questions like, Are they doing me a favor, and could it go away?" says Carol Newlin Searles, a business-development director who recently used the sheet to set up a telecommuting arrangement.
The form also wins plaudits from managers. "From an efficiency perspective, it's fabulous," says senior vice-president Rebecca Haag, who approved Searles's proposal in a week. "I didn't worry that I was forgetting to ask something." Haag also praises the form's effectiveness: "It lays out all the issues, has a potential resolution of those issues, and gives you time to pilot the new schedule to be sure it's working."
Work/Family admits that its form is not a magic bullet; it can't erase the subjective nature of the judgments managers must make. But Fran Rodgers, Work/Family's CEO and Charles's wife, considers it important to establish mutually acceptable ground rules. Last spring Work/Family set up an employee task force to decide which questions should be on the form and which shouldn't. There's continual training in how to use the form; managers and employees take turns role-playing, asking for and granting or denying flextime requests.
It's those processes, not just the form itself, that the cofounders believe can help provide protection against legal disputes. "You have to help people create a process that promotes fairness and consistency," says Fran Rodgers. "We hope that the courts will say, 'If you've done that, you've done what you should do.' "
Sample Flextime Request Form:
FLEXIBLE WORK OPTION REQUEST
(To be completed for new ongoing flexible work option only)
I. (Employee completes this section)
Date request submitted to manager:
Flexible Work Option Requested:
Part-time / Job Sharing (employee must find partner) / Telecommuting / Compressed Work Weeks / Flextime / Other
Describe your current schedule and the hours/schedule requested:
(Days & Hours, Current; Days & Hours, Requested; On-site; Off-site; Total Weekly Hours)
How will your proposed schedule sustain or enhance your ability to get he job done?
What potential barriers could your changed schedule raise with:
external customers / internal customers / co-workers / your manager
How do you suggest overcoming any challenges with these groups?
(If applicable): Describe any additional equipment/expense that your arrangement might require. Detail any short- or long-term cost savings that might result from your new schedule to offset these expenses.
What reasonable deliverables and measurements would you propose for you and your manager to assess how your performance is meeting or exceeding expectations? Be as quantitative as possible.
What review process with your manager do you propose for constructive monitoring and improvement of you flexible work option? Are there measurable outcomes to use in the review process?
II. (Manager completes this section)
Request for a Flexible Work Option (approved or declined). If you declined this request, please describe why:
Effective date of Flexible Work Option:
Ending date (if option is to be limited or terminated):
Manager: Please send copies of this form and any attachments to (contact name - Human Resources).
Charles Rodgers tells how Work/Family's flextime request form talks (mostly) business:
"Some nontraditional schedules are more difficult to implement for nonexempt employees. Some kinds of alternative work arrangements require employees to work in excess of 40 hours -- every other week, for example. In those instances, nonexempt employees have to be paid overtime."
"We define [the Flexible Work Options] in guidelines that we distribute throughout the office, so people know the range of choices that are available to them."
"It's very important to have a baseline for seeing how an employee's schedule will change. You can't assume everybody starts out working 9 to 5, particularly in a place like this."
"The idea here [How will your proposed schedule sustain or enhance your ability to get he job done?] is to focus on business needs. We ask applicants to think about how their job could get done on a different schedule, assuming they understand the key parameters of the job. When an employee starts to think through the process, the application might end right there. But often, by not focusing on the sanctity of the 9-to-5 schedule, we find better ways of doing business."
"This [What potential barriers . . .] is the checklist we like people to go through as they think about the question above. By asking to work part-time, for example, are you making your manager's job more difficult? Are you asking coworkers to cover your schedule? If you're asking them to do a significant part of your job, that's a barrier; on the other hand, as people talk to their coworkers a lot of these things tend to get worked out. We think the process furthers exchange among employees."
"If applicants identify challenges, we want them to think through how they're going to address them. The point is to place responsibility for initiating the solution process with the employee."
"Like any business, we're sensitive to costs. If someone is going to telecommute and incur additional costs, we ask the employee to suggest ways to help offset the costs."
"We're really asking [What reasonable deliverables and measurements . . .], How do we know the job is being done? The word deliverables is used to focus people on results -- the value they add, as opposed to the time they spend. A valuable by-product is acknowledgment that it's not as important how, where, or when you do it as that you do it and that you deliver the service to the client in a high-quality way."
"Here [What review process . . .] we're focusing on the process for monitoring the results agreed on in the previous question. The manager may say, 'I'm a little uneasy about this, but I think it's worth a try. So let's do it for three months, and let's check in once a month and ask how it's going."
"[Declined requests for flextime] are usually because of identified barriers. If you work the phones in our family-resource area and the peak volume tends to be between 5 and 7 in the evening, but you want to come in early in the morning, when there aren't many calls, that's probably grounds for a denial. But if it's an evening schedule you want, that obviously won't be a barrier; it will be a plus."
"We have both parties sign off on grounds of common sense as much as for legal reasons. Signing off ensures that everyone sees what's written down and that there are no surprises. You're both aware of the issues and acknowledge that you're aware of them, even though you may disagree."