Flextime seems like one of the natural benefits a company might provide employees. It can remove a lot of unnecessary pressure for people with dependent relatives, terrible commutes, or even biological clocks that don't necessarily mesh with an absolute imposed schedule. People adjust their schedules and work from home to get their jobs done.
However, there are multiple ways a flex program can go wrong. I spoke with Peter Hirst, Associate Dean of Executive Education at MIT's Sloan School of Management, whose department focused on creating a strong flextime program 18 months ago. Here are some of the lessons the organization learned.
Having and using a program are two different things
"At MIT we had the notion of flexible working on the books, but historically the reality on the ground was it often felt like a daunting process to go through," Hirst said. "A person asking for flexibility was expected to make the case of why they needed it as well as how they were going to make it work. There was a sense of almost there being some stigma associated with it, like a concession to somebody."
If you make it sufficiently inconvenient for someone to use a benefit, it becomes a point of contention and the organization loses the benefit it could gain from keeping employees happy. Recognize that flextime will increasingly become an expectation and be ready to meet it.
Address everyone's concerns
There are some legitimate questions that people in the organization may have. For example, they may question whether there will be an impact to culture, a loss of creativity and innovation, a reduction in ability to work together effectively, the potential for a bias effect that rewards the careers of those who work in person all the time, and even a concern that people might be forced to work at home if they don't want to because a company wants to save money by supporting fewer people in the office. There was also apprehension that flextime could become a perk for only the most senior people.
"[The Sloan HR group] really encouraged us to be thoughtful about this, identified an external consultant who worked with companies on flexible workplace arrangements," Hirst said. Get expert help in creating a viable flextime program.
Get everyone involved in the change process
Developing and implementing a flextime program, like virtually any change in a company, happens more easily if people are involved in the process rather than the recipients of something imposed. The more involvement, the more the employees become invested in what happens. "We engaged all the staff in the organization about this and coming up with a set of principles that we'd use to guide us," Hirst said.
Also remember that there will be those who are resistant to the entire process. Early on some of the more senior people said some were not pulling their weight or who were losing their engagement. "That is clearly a risk and you need mechanisms to be able to manage that when it arises," he said. But be sure not to limit the program for someone without a good reason.
Develop some practical common practices
Flextime works when there are some core principles and practices that keep things in sync as much as possible. For example, define core hours. "If you're someone like me working at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning, let's not create the expectation that everyone is supposed to do that," Hirst said. "If I'm a night owl, that shouldn't create the expectation that everyone will march to that beat." That would defeat the entire point of the exercise, which is to reduce stress on employees and to create a more effective working environment.
Also, consider having at least one day a week when those who can get into the office do. At Sloan's Executive Education group, Wednesdays are days to organize meetings where everyone is needed. Also, avoid scheduling meetings for hours early or late in the day that force people into the very fixed schedules you're trying to eliminate.
Use ongoing metrics
Like any other process in a company, you should find ways to measure the effects to know if the actions taken support strategic direction. "We did surveys of the team and went from under 10 percent having formal flexibility to two-thirds doing formal flexibility," Hirst said. And everyone on staff used flexibility at least on an ad hoc, rather than continuing, basis when necessary.
The group has seen an increase in efficiency and engagement -- "the time that we get back from people not having to commute [during the most time-consuming hours," Hirst said. He attributes success to what has been a "demonstration that actually the organization trusts its people." But the measurement hasn't ended after 18 months, just to be sure that the system doesn't become taken for granted and the improvements lost.
Metrics also include individual employee metrics and management. It may be some people won't do well with flextime. It also may be that some people who could really use it don't want to take it because of fear that it will negatively affect their careers. Manage performance to be sure that the necessary work is getting done.