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Flexible schedules work best when thought out, detailed
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Workers, employers embrace flextime
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How to Get a Flexible Schedule
  Flexible schedules work best when thought out, detailed  

July 21, 2008
Barbara Rose


Every week brings another announcement of a government agency adopting a four-day week or a business expanding telecommuting options to help minimize employees' pain at the gas pump.

The spike in oil prices “the latest in a host of megatrends pushing organizations to offer alternative work arrangements” seems a golden opportunity for flexibility advocates.

Yet there are pitfalls. Knee-jerk solutions such as four-day weeks and work-from-home Fridays are not necessarily the answer, experts say, and ill-conceived or hastily adopted programs serve neither customers nor employees.

In Ohio, where workers in 23 state agencies enjoyed access to flexible hours and four-day weeks for about eight years, administrators tightened state policies in February because they said service had suffered.

"On Fridays it was difficult to get an answer to a question from some of our business units," said Ron Sylvester, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services. "We are about making sure that Ohio citizens get someone on the other end of the phone at 3 o'clock on Friday."

Ohio's retrenchment bucked a trend toward compressed work weeks in local government, and it distressed some employees. Yet workers in other locales complained that logging four 1 0-hour days per week would wreak havoc with their family lives.

Offering options tailored to fit an organization's needs and strategy is the way to go, experts said.

"A four-day week can be a great solution when it's not imposed," said senior consultant Karen Noble, leader of the "everywhere workplace" practice at Newton, Mass -based WFD Consulting. "When you say everybody will work four-day weeks, that's 'rigid flexibility' and it's not driven by business needs it's not even driven necessarily by people's needs. What people want is more control over the imposed paradigm."
"Flexibility is about how we get work done together in this economy," said consultant Cali Williams Yost, president of Madison, N.J.-based Work+Life Fit Inc "Gas prices and being 'green' would be one aspect of it, along with serving customers in a 24/7 environment, managing global teams, recruiting and retaining talent, managing real estate more efficiently."

Trust issues remain

Even such apparently simple solutions as carpooling require employers to be more flexible, said Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human relations for the American Management Association. "People need to be able to leave on time so that if you're one of four, it's understood you can jump in the car rather than keeping others waiting."

The biggest gas savings comes from telecommuting, but it requires investment in technology and in training managers and employees.
"The biggest obstacle continues to be management mistrust" by supervisors who equate face time with productivity, said telework researcher and author Kate Lister.

She estimates 50 million jobs could be performed remotely. If all those people worked from home about half the time, gas savings based on an average commute at $4.50 per gallon would total $40 billion, or 60 percent of the nation's Gulf-region oil imports.

Technology's reach grows

Many global technology companies already down that road. At Nortel Networks Inc., where telecommuting has been an option for 15 years, director of workplace planning, innovation and construction David Dunn said employees "have been voting with their feet in terms of making choices about where and when and how to work."

Advances in Internet telephony and a proliferation of mobile devices have given them more choices, he added. Even though only 30 percent of employees are registered as home-based or mobile workers, about 50 percent accesses the network remotely every day.

”It's only in the last three to four years where these technologies have become ubiquitous and the shift in behavior is increasing," he said. "Whether you're a human resources person or a technology person or an environmental person, I think we're at the beginning of a very dramatic shift."

Noble, the consultant, agrees "Flexibility usually only happens when people's backs are to the wall or when business needs really change," she said. "Gas has got everybody focused like a laser beam on employee pain and how to minimize it. It's heightening people's awareness of global and demographic trends that have been going on for a long time. [These] might finally be the forces that trigger sustainable change in the way we work."

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  Workers, employers embrace flextime  

March 04, 2007
Barbara Rose


CHICAGO:  A year ago, when employees at Citigroup Inc.’s South Dakota credit-card center were offered a chance to select schedules that better fit their lives, Deb Qualseth jumped at the opportunity to work 10-hour days and take Fridays off.

"It helps you juggle what happens outside this place," the billing-dispute specialist said. "It’s made a huge difference."

Historically, only a handful of professionals enjoyed control over when or where they worked. But some companies, including Citigroup, are offering greater flexibility to hourly workers with traditionally rigid schedules as a way to reduce turnover, increase efficiency or compete in tighter labor markets.

Their efforts, driven by the demands of a round-the-clock economy and the complexities of people’s lives, mark an important shift in thinking about how to manage masses of lower-paid employees who make up an increasing percentage of the work force.

"It’s not only professional workers that have 24-7 lives; it’s all workers," said Donna Klein, president and chief executive of Corporate Voices for Working Families, a nonprofit group backed by big companies.

At JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s credit-card center in Elgin, some top performers make up their own schedules and work only weekends by choice. In Salt Lake City, JetBlue Airways, home-based reservation agents go online to bid for shifts and request schedule changes.

Customer-service reps at a Peoples Gas call center in Chicago swap shifts online. Pennsylvania-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc. offers "summers-off" and "peak-hours" teller positions that are popular with retirees and parents with school-age children.

"This is not about a perk. It’s about how the work can be done most efficiently and effectively," said senior consultant Karen Noble, leader of the Everywhere Workplace practice at WFD Consulting in Boston.

There are no statistics on how many hourly employees have some degree of control over their schedules, but experts say the percentage is small.

In many cases, flexibility is a one-way street: Schedules fluctuate unpredictably based on customer traffic or order volume, without regard for workers’ preferences.

"Many lower-level workers wish they had a rigid job they could build their life around," said University of Chicago associate professor Susan Lambert, who studies low-wage workers.

But companies in industries such as financial services are looking at more flexible ways to manage thousands of hourly workers who keep vital operations going in the service economy’s white-collar factories.

"We’re trying to steer managers to understand flexibility is absolutely a business necessity," said Dee Dee Guzman in Houston, manager of JPMorgan Chase’s flexibility team.

Flexible work policies have been a fixture of corporate life for more than two decades, but studies show that lower-paid workers are far less likely to be able to pick their starting and quitting times or to work from home.

"This population has not been addressed because it’s a harder fix, it’s much harder to do," said Klein of Corporate Voices.
Among the barriers are federal overtime laws that are designed to protect employees and require careful tracking of hours.
Lean staffing and the need to provide backup by workers who can step in and do one another’s jobs also makes it harder to vary shifts while keeping operations running smoothly.

Yet, preliminary studies show the payback in loyalty and engagement is almost twice as high for lower-wage workers than for professionals.
"We’re speculating they’re that much more grateful because they get so much less in terms of work-life supports," Klein said.

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  How to Get a Flexible Schedule  

Francesca Di Meglio, Monster Contributing Writer

Men and women are feeling the squeeze: on one end from child care, for which, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 15 percent of workers had access to employer assistance in 2006, and on the other end from elder care as demographics shift toward an aging population.

With these dual responsibilities in mind, some are looking to flexible work schedules to allow them to have it all -- time with family members and a competitive career.

For the most part, women are still shouldering much of these obligations. In a 2006 study of 1,755 working parents by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization for working women, nearly 80 percent of the women respondents reported having the main or total responsibility for child care in their households.

“Women are still the main caretakers of home and children,” says Karen Noble, senior consultant and practice leader of the Everywhere Workplace at WFD Consulting in Newton, Massachusetts. Studies also suggest that women are more often responsible for elder care.
Given these realities, it’s not surprising that a 2001 Catalyst survey of people born between 1964 and 1975 found that women were more likely than men to report they’d like flexible work arrangements or that the later Catalyst study of working parents found that flexibility was among the top ways working parents felt employers could ease their stress.

If you’re among those -- man or woman -- who’d like a more flexible schedule, here’s how to rally coworkers and make a persuasive case to the boss.

Assess the Culture

Look around you. Does anyone else have a flexible arrangement? If so, talk to them. If not, find out if others are interested in such programs. Experts, including Noble, stress that work/life balance is not just a women’s issue.

Next, go to HR. Are flexible work schedules in the menu of benefits? Not knowing what you’re entitled to is a big mistake, says Karen Sumberg, assistant vice president of communications and projects at the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Many company programs go unused. If your company does not offer such a program, consider creating one.

Assess Yourself and Your Job

Flexible work arrangements come in different forms. They include a flexible start and end time, compressed or extended workweeks, and being able to leave the office during the day to tend to other commitments. Some HR consultants also label telecommuting (especially if it’s not everyday), job sharing and reduced work schedules as flexible arrangements.

Given these variations, figure out what kind of schedule and arrangement work best with your work habits and job responsibilities. Would a particular schedule or arrangement improve or impair your ability to perform your job?

As you consider your options, be honest about your level of discipline and your past performance, suggests Diane Krieman, senior talent consultant at Hewitt Associates, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm. If you’re not performing with a regular schedule, your boss is unlikely to hand you the privilege of a flexible one.

Put Yourself in Your Boss’s Shoes

Position your proposed arrangement as one that benefits the employer through increased productivity or other cost savings. If, for example, a compressed workweek will provide added coverage at a time when the company needs it, sell your proposed schedule in that way.

“You need to position your request in a way that puts the interests of the business first,” says Elizabeth Wilcox, a former content producer for Monster who focuses on the women's channel and the author of The Mom Economy: The Mother’s Guide to Getting Family-Friendly Work. 

Prepare a Proposal

Write a formal business plan and schedule a meeting with your boss to explain the benefits to him and your employer. Be ready to explain how you will accomplish your job tasks. Outline why your flexible schedule won’t make life more difficult for your boss or colleagues, says Jane Weizmann, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt, a consulting firm focused on human capital and financial management, in Arlington, Virginia.

Keep Your Promises

Once your flexible schedule gets approved, perform. Noble advises you go beyond your job objectives and set up metrics to measure your progress. She adds that keeping a timeline for achieving certain goals -- on the home front and in the office -- is a good way to determine if you’re meeting your performance objectives. Check in with your boss often to ensure she’s satisfied with your results. Set up a time to review the success of the proposed schedule a few months after it’s in place. If it’s not working, be open to change.

Communicate with Coworkers

Resentment from fellow coworkers is common. Performing well and communicating often is one way to gain support. “Resentment obstructs what needs to be done,” says Weizmann. “People don’t just walk around with your schedule in their heads.” Tell colleagues and your boss where you are and what you’re doing. Be up front with coworkers, says Noble, and have a back-up plan for modifying the system if necessary.

Set Boundaries

While you’ll need to establish limits so you’re not working overtime, be willing to make necessary accommodations. “You’ll have to be flexible on your flexible schedule,” says Wilcox. Flexibility from the employer demands the same in return.

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