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Can work: flexible work arrangements.

With the economy continuing to languish and many organizations trying to do more with less, it may seem like the wrong time to implement flexible work arrangements. Such arrangements sometimes are seen as an accommodation to employees' needs that can disrupt an organization's operations and degrade customer service. * However, a growing body of research, as well as evidence from several telecommunications organizations, shows that flexible work arrangements, when appropriately implemented, can benefit both the organization and the employees who use them. * While no single definition for "flexible work arrangement" exists, the phrase usually refers to allowing some flexibility in employees' work schedule or location, said Diane Burrus, senior consultant and workplace flexibility practice leader with Boston-based WFD Consulting. A flex arrangement can be informal, negotiated between an employee and his or her supervisor. Or, it can be more formal, encompassing longer-term changes to the standard schedule, such as flexible start and end times, that are made available across a department or work group.

To be sure, a flexible work arrangement may start as an accommodation between an employer and employee, Burrus said. The employee may need some shifting of his or her work hours to manage responsibilities at home. Over time, however, the arrangements may become more standardized and available to greater numbers of employees. "It becomes a shift in the ongoing schedule," Burrus noted.

That can benefit both employees and the organization. For instance, offering flexible work schedules has been key to the ability of RT Communications (Worland, Wyo.) to attract and retain talented employees, said Becky

Dooley, vice president and general manager. "While we historically have had a low turnover rate, we've experienced reduced employee cost and greater employee satisfaction" since implementing several flexible work arrangements, she said.

At this point, just a handful of RT's 63 employees have taken advantage of flexible working arrangements, but the results have been good. One customer service representative worked part time from home while recuperating from a hospitalization. This helped the company, which was short-handed at the time and needed his contribution, and also enabled the employee to stay abreast of work-related issues while he was gone. In addition, RT's field technicians often work four 10-hour days during the summer rather than five 8-hour days. More than providing employees with a three-day weekend, this schedule limits the number of trips to and from customer locations--RT's service area spans 10,000 square miles--saving time and gas, and reducing overtime.

Community Commitment

As a smaller telecommunications company, RT wants its customers to know it is committed to both its employees and its service area. "As a small telco, we're highly involved in the community and we like to tout that. We're here, and some of the big boys aren't," Dooley added.

RT's experience isn't unique. In a 2005 WFD Consulting report, "Business Impacts of Flexibility: An Imperative for Expansion," responses from a number of organizations, including Accenture, IBM and Ernst & Young, showed the positive impact that flexible work arrangements can have on employee retention. For instance, 80% of Accenture employees said their ability to successfully manage both their work and home lives played a role in their desire to stay with Accenture.

Flexible work arrangements also can help organizations better meet customer needs. That's been the case at Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative (Rainsville, Ala.), said J. Frederick Johnson, executive vice president and general manager. About three years ago, Farmers moved to a flexible work environment to extend its customer service hours. Previously, the customer service office was open from 7:30 a.m to 4 p.m., which is the norm in the telco's service area.

A growing number of customers, however, wanted the office to stay open until 5 p.m. so they could stop by after their own workdays wrapped up. Some also wanted Saturday hours. Johnson and his management team decided to expand their hours to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, and add a Saturday shift.

Through the company newsletter, as well as staff meetings, Johnson alerted employees to the change, and asked if any were interested in shifting their work schedules to cover the new hours. Enough employees volunteered to cover the new hours that Johnson didn't have to require any changes. Several people like starting and ending their days a little later, while others work one Saturday per month. That allows them a day off during the week, during which they can take care of doctors' appointments and the like. As a result, Johnson said he has noticed a "notable" drop in absenteeism, although he doesn't have firm statistics.

As Farmers has found, flexible work arrangements can cut absenteeism. Respondents to the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey indicated alternative working arrangements were the most effective work-life program in reducing unplanned absences.

Trend Turnaround?

During the 1990s, acceptance of flexible work arrangements grew, said Katie Corrigan, co-director of Workplace Flexibility 2010 at Georgetown University. Then the concept hit a plateau. It was becoming common among larger companies known for best practices, yet had not become mainstream, she said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of full-time workers with flexible schedules dropped from 28.6 in 2001 to 27.5 in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Over the past year and half, however, anecdotal evidence is suggesting that more companies are again turning to flexible work arrangements, said Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress with World at Work, a nonprofit human resources association. Thai's because the plans can help managers reduce costs and adjust hours to reflect lower demand, without eliminating employees.

The changing nature of the work force also is driving interest in flexible work arrangements, said Jeff Alderton, a principal with Deloitte Consulting. In 1950, for instance, just 18.4% of married women with children were in the work force. By 1983, that number had risen to 57.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Without one spouse at home full-time, employees can struggle to meet their responsibilities outside of work.

The changing expectations of today's work force play a role, as well. "The millennial generation has a different perspective of their work life from baby boomers," Dooley said. "Their life away from work is far more important to them," and many don't hesitate to negotiate for more vacation and flexible hours and locations.

At the other end of the age spectrum, flexible work arrangements can help older employees who still can contribute to an organization but are looking for some type of reduced schedule, Corrigan noted.

Finally, technology comes into play, Alderton said. Employees today often can access their computer, data and even their colleagues from outside the work place. That reduces the need for all employees to always work from the organization's offices.

Avoid "Scattershot" Approach

Flexible work arrangements won't succeed if the organization doesn't benefit, as well as the employees. For the arrangements to effectively expand from one-off deals between a single employee and supervisor to a range of opportunities available to greater numbers of employees, managers will want to think through the shift in a thoughtful, strategic way, Corrigan said. "You need a comprehensive, and not scattershot campaign." That way the organization can head off potential problems, and leverage the arrangements so the organization becomes more nimble and competitive.

At the outset, the organization needs to spell out guidelines and policies that will govern the flexible working arrangements, Burrus said. The guidelines should be based on business operations, rather than on accommodating employees' needs, she added. For instance, if certain periods are extremely busy, the organization may need to let employees know that they'll need to be on hand during those times.

Management also needs to clearly outline the process required of employees interested in flexible work arrangements. That way, all employees can see the steps they need to follow. And, having a standard process relieves managers of the need to reinvent the wheel each time a request is made, Corrigan added.

Moreover, a standard process means managers don't have to respond one-by-one to employee requests, which can lead to an inconsistent application of the arrangements, Burrus said. While the organization can never promise that all requests will be met, given differing job needs, the goal is a "clear process" that is--and is seen by employees as--fair, Burrus added.

One potential challenge can be resistance from employees and managers who aren't availing themselves of flexible working arrangements, and who may feel that they have been forced to pick up any slack created by those who are. One way to avoid this, Corrigan said, is to have a workgroup or team develop the schedule. That way, everyone can bring up his or her needs.

Citizens Telephone Cooperative (Floyd, Va.) has had several flexible work programs in place for the past few years, including compressed workweeks and flexible hours. As with RT Communications, Citizens' compressed workweeks generally are four 10-hour days, but are used primarily by the construction crew and help to hold down travel time and costs, as well as overtime. Flexible-scheduling is used by customer service, install and repair, and central office employees, and it allows Citizens to offer its customers extended hours during the week and on Saturdays, while controlling salaries and other expenses, said Rita Turpin, human resources manager.

Two to three employees in the department develop a schedule going out several months, with the same ground rules. For instance, each employee takes a turn working Saturdays or the later shift for a week. Employees' ability to take time off is limited during the busier weeks each month because of the billing cycle and increase in the number of disconnects.

An Arrangement, not an Entitlement

As a general rule, when it's the employee requesting a flex arrangement, it should be his or her responsibility to describe to management the arrangement, the potential challenges it might pose and possible solutions for addressing them. The proposal also should include recommendations for measuring the success of the arrangement, and identify the schedule by which the manager and employee will check in with each other. Armed with this information, the manager isn't put in the position of determining the importance of an employee's reasons for asking for a flexible working arrangement, which almost inevitably leads to inequities, or of figuring out how the arrangement will work.

Instead, the process becomes more of a negotiation, and the manager can focus on how well the arrangement might work for the company. At the same lime, the process reinforces to employees the fact that a flexible arrangement isn't an entitlement.

When working within a flexible schedule, many employees need to rethink their approach to work, Corrigan said. Rather than just show up for eight hours, they need to focus on results and goals. And, they need to show how they will report those results to their manager.

At the same time, managers often have to change their approach to supervision and rewards, Lingle said. Because they may not be able to easily monitor each employee's hours, they'll need to look at other factors, such as their continued ability to meet deadlines.

Finally, management needs to consider any regulations that may come into play when moving to flexible working arrangements. For instance, some states count as overtime any hours over eight that employees work in a day. Of course, that will boost the cost of longer work days, and may make them unprofitable.

Given the cultural changes that typically have to occur for flexible work arrangements to succeed, the shift rarely is quick. In fact, an 18- to 24-month implementation time frame is not unusual, Alderton said.

And, for some positions or organizations, flexible arrangements may not work. Johnson of Farmers, for instance, said he and his management team have considered offering extended days, with a day off during the week, to Farmers' field crew. However, the organization needs to have the employees available all five days during the week in the event problems arise. "There's a lot to be gained from the efficiency of 10-hour days, but the advantages don't overcome (the problems that can occur) on the day that they're not there," he said.

In the future, the idea of flexible work arrangements is likely to transform into what Deloitte terms "mass career customization," Alderton said. This concept considers four dimensions that make up jobs and career positions: the employee's pace of career progression, his or her workload, the position's location and schedule, and the employee's role within the organization. Any of these might be adjusted as employees move throughout their career. So, if an employee needs to care for an elderly parent for a period of time, he or she may throttle back the pace, workload and schedule. The idea is not to create deals for employees but to build employee commitment while meeting the organization's needs, Alderton explained.

When management can give employees some control over the conditions of their work, the organization gets more engaged workers, Lingle said. "Engaged employees will go the extra mile for their employer."

Karen M. Kroll is a freelance writer. She can be reached at
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Author:Kroll, Karen M.
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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