Personnel e.bulletin – September 2012

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Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.

Every company has a workplace strategy that defines how work should be performed and managed.  An effective workplace strategy leads to improved employee engagement, job retention, job satisfaction and employee well being, all of which are essential elements for improving company performance. An important component of the workplace strategy of any company is workplace flexibility.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s National Workplace Flexibility Initiative defines it as:

– The ability to have flexibility in the scheduling of hours
– The ability to have flexibility in the number of hours worked
– The ability to have career flexibility with multiple points of entry, exit and re-entry into the workforce
– The ability to address unexpected and ongoing personal and family needs

The Realities of Today’s Workplace
In today’s tech savvy world, the boundaries between work and home have blurred. We are in constant touch with work through our laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. This has disturbed the delicate work life balance needed to function at our optimum capacity. Stress at work and the feeling that work is taking over one’s life impacts the motivation to perform and can lead to burnout, even by people at the early stages of their careers.

Over the past half century we have seen dual income families, more women in the workforce, more elder care responsibilities, increased traffic and commuting times, and a need for continuous education to better career prospects. These changes in our society have made work place flexibility a must have in any organization’s workplace strategy handbook.

According to a 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute, the percentage of employees experiencing some kind of work-life conflict increased from 34% in 1977 to 44% in 2008.

Data also suggests that employers are finding that flexibility is a smart management practice. The benefits far outweigh costs and are evident in less absenteeism, turnover, and improved worker health and productivity (2010 report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers). With less conflict between work and home life, employees can be more engaged in the workplace, thereby reducing stress, anxiety, and other factors that can inhibit effective performance in the workplace.

Key Options in Workplace Flexibility
Now that we understand the definition and the need for workplace flexibility, it will be helpful to understand the options available to implement it.  Telework, flex time, compressed work week, and part time schedules are the most commonly offered options.

Telework – This is an arrangement where an employee regularly, or on an ad hoc basis, works from a remote location which could be their home, a business center, library etc. Technology exists that would easily allow some office staff to work from home – even reception and dispatching can be handled remotely.

Flex Time – This is an arrangement that allows an employee to alter the starting and end time of their workday, provided they are in the office at some core hours.

Compressed Work Week – This is an arrangement in which an employee works their full appointed time in less than one week. A full workweek is condensed into fewer than five days; or two full-time workweeks are compressed into nine or nine and one-half days.

Part Time Schedules – Here employees are allowed to work less than the normal weekly hours. These may or may not include benefits.

Other arrangements that are prevalent, though less popular with companies, include job sharing, phased retirement, career on/off ramps with multiple exit and re-entry points during the course of one’s career.

Noteworthy Aspects of Workplace Flexibility – Some important aspects of workplace flexibility considered by companies that implement the concept are the following.

– Flexibility is a management tool/practice and not an employee perk or accommodation.

– Employee reason for wanting flexibility should not matter unless covered by law. These should be uniformly applied to avoid any chance of favoritism.

– Not everyone wants or can have flexible arrangements. It has been observed that there is more flexibility in a highly skilled job as compared to a lower skilled one.

– Flexible work arrangements can be temporary or permanent.

Steps to Implement Workplace Flexibility – The first step in implementing a workplace flexibility program is to decide the scope of the program, what issues the program will address, and how formal or informal it will be.  Some helpful tips while developing your strategy:

1. Understand the issues involved, where has the need for the program arisen, and what is it that we are trying to achieve.

2. Understand the culture of your company and any past experiences that you may have had on this issue.

3. Understand the jobs in your company; this can be achieved by creating detailed job descriptions. It helps to know what people do in their jobs, before creating a strategy on how you want them to do their work.

4. Take management into your confidence making sure you have their full support. Policy implementation and culture is driven by management. If they don’t support what you’re doing, there is little chance that your strategy will be effective.

5. Develop the policy and tools to implement it. Make sure you provide all the resources to implement and make the policy usable.

6. Communicate effectively, write it unambiguously and in easy to understand words and communicate clearly to your staff and managers.

Advantages of a Workplace Flexibility Program – Properly designed and correctly implemented workplace flexibility programs can be an important recruiting and retention tool.  They can help the employer recruit a diverse, talented, and highly productive workforce while decreasing turnover and motivating employees. As stress levels go down, wellness improves among the workforce along with reduced absenteeism as employees have time to take care of their heath and personal errands.

Challenges Facing Flexibility Programs – Resistance to flexibility programs is not uncommon. There are many reasons for that, some being:

– Lack of top management belief and support. To overcome this challenge, CEO buy in is an essential part of implementing a flexible work program.

– Less than effective communication to the staff and managers after the program has been created.

– Sometimes middle managers do not know how to manage remote workers. They are the ones who deal with managing their teams remotely. The task of managing an invisible employee can be daunting at times especially when company bottom lines are under scrutiny. Flexibility programs can be made scapegoats.

– Some people feel discriminated against if the implementation of the program is not clear.

– People don’t know the benefits of the program clearly or in quantifiable terms. This may lead to their not realizing how effective a flexible workplace strategy is in retaining and motivating the top talent in the industry.

According to a World at Work survey, only around 7% of companies actually calculate the ROI on a flexible program at the work place. The same survey also pointed out that there is less turnover in companies that rate high on having flexible work arrangements.

Legal Concerns in a Flexible Workplace Arrangement – While poorly created and badly implemented work place flexibility programs can expose the employer to litigation, there are few legal issues around implementing such programs. In fact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) encourages these programs. Problems arise when these programs are inconsistently implemented.

There is always a risk that such programs may be implemented in a manner that results in perceived or actual disparate treatment or impact against one or more protected individuals. For example, if it appears that most flexible work arrangements have been granted to younger or white employees, the employer may be exposed to a discrimination lawsuit.

Sometimes sex stereotypes result in the manager deciding who is most qualified for receiving eligibility for telecommuting.  Incorrectly implemented programs may implicate Federal employment and state laws (e.g. Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Fair Labor Standards Act.)  Care must be taken to document each decision in detail with articulating reasons behind it.

Conclusion – Evidence suggests that wisely created and properly implemented workplace flexibility programs are a great management tool. Problems may arise when these are not consistently implemented or clearly communicated.

Setting clear and transparent policies, taking management along, training managers and staff on the policies, and documenting each implementation will help the organization reap maximum benefit of a work place flexibility arrangement.


This content was developed for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. (www.tpo-inc.com). Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of August 2012. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional. Please note this article is not intended to provide legal advice or to substitute for supervisor employment law training.

The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a contribution at http://www.phccfoundation.org.


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