Last Updated May 29, 2007 7:18 PM EDT
In a 24/7 world, work drives out personal time. Most of us are expected to be in the workplace for eight hours and then take work home with us. With company cell phones and laptops we're expected to keep connected. Sure it makes us more productive and available to our colleagues around the clock but it is also overloading an increasing number of people.
Allowing job flexibility is one method of accommodating the complexities of contemporary life. It utilizes extended connectivity and helps employees reduce their exposure to dangerous levels of stress due to incompatible work schedules.
If it isn't obvious to your organization that increased connectivity should be met with flexible job design, you may need to look for work elsewhere. If you find your work and personal life out of balance, it may also be due to your lack of personal time management or performance capability. If that is the case, you will need to focus on those aspects of time and personal performance management you can improve so that you can regain control over your life.
First, when given the choice, not everyone chooses a flexible job. Many people already have established routines and feel comfortable the way things are. Second, there is no evidence that people with flexible jobs are less productive than when they were supervised solely in the workplace. In fact some studies indicate that productivity goes up among people who choose the flexible job option. Work with your employees to determine the system that best meets your needs and theirs. The key to making job flexibility work is changing the supervisory mindset from monitoring time spent at work to expected outcomes. Direct supervision is rarely needed; besides, you can't watch everyone all the time. Even draconian controls, such as measuring keystrokes or utilizing a form of a piece rate compensation program, aren't very effective in getting the performance you want. And, if that level of control is necessary for some jobs, work flexibility wouldn't be a realistic option anyway.
There are several key areas in which you can address the work-life balance question:
- Traditional Flextime. People work on a few available schedules that vary start and finish times, but maintain the same expected number of hours during the day. Thus instead of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., an employee might choose to work 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. Flextime is great for parents trying to manage a household as well as a job. This form of flextime is good for anyone who finds it difficult to work within the conventional timeframe. Everyone's energy levels fluctuate during the day but not necessarily at the same time, so flextime is a good solution for helping people work at their peak. Another major advantage is that commuters have an opportunity to better manage their rush-hour experience-one of the most wasteful and stressful parts of the day.
- Part-time working. Part-time employees may choose between working more hours in a day but fewer days each week or fewer hours in a day and more days per week. This option works well for people with parental or care-giving responsibilities. People returning to work after long periods of care-giving, education, recovering from illness, or having pursued other interests, will also find this arrangement advantageous.
- Job sharing.This involves two people sharing one full-time workload, each on a part-time basis. This has similar benefits to the individual as regular part-time work but enables both people to negotiate their specific times and duties among themselves.
- Working at home or telecommuting. Many jobs now involve computer-based activities that can be done as easily over the Internet or from a remote (telecommuting) facility. For tasks that require a great deal of individual concentration, and uninterrupted blocks of time, this option is best. Because of rising gasoline prices, jammed highways and expensive real-estate costs, working from home or remotely, full-time, is increasing.
- Schedule synchronization. This option allows employees with children or other care giving obligations a way of synchronizing schedules with their children's school vacation. Similarly, it allows a couple to organize around non-work as well as work-related obligations. This time off can be taken as unpaid leave, or the salary for a reduced calendar year of work, as with teachers, for example, can be paid evenly across the year. The sorts of employers most likely to offer this option are those in industries that experience seasonal peaks and troughs.
There are other options. The possibilities for altering schedules to fit the needs of employees and employers alike, are quite numerous. Consider these designs:
- Staggered hours. Employees choose different start, finish, and break times according to their personal needs.
- Compressed working hours. Employees work their required number of hours whenever they choose as long as safety and health issues do not arise. Nurses and firefighters, for example, often have rotations of three days on and four days off.
- Annualized hours. Employees have the flexibility to design their yearly hours using the design that meets their seasonal needs over the course of a full year. This accommodates school vacation schedules for parents as well as training regimens for semi-professional athletes, for example.
- Swapping. Employees negotiate their working times and shifts, week to week, between themselves.
- Self-scheduling. Employees state their preferred working times, and then shifts are organized to accommodate as many preferences as possible.
- Career breaks. In addition to paternity, maternity, and parental leave, staff may also be allowed unpaid career breaks and/or paid sabbaticals.
- Compensatory Time Off. Employees are given time off at their convenience for giving extra hours to meet irregular work demands or weekend travel requirements.
- Flexible and "cafeteria" benefits. Employees are offered benefits from a menu of choices and are allowed to pick those work hours best suited to them instead of other benefits such as onsite day care for their children.
First of all, check with the human resources department to see what possibilities already exist. Some organizations may also consider flextime on an individual basis depending on personal and company circumstances. If you don't have a human resources department do some informal research and discuss your needs for flextime with your boss. Keep in mind that while it may not have been done before, there is a lot of research to support your case. If there is resistance to the idea because of the fear of the unknown, suggest that it be an experiment or temporary, and express your willingness to work out the details with the company so everyone gets what they need.
Prepare your case and anticipate questions your manager may have particularly related to reliable productivity and how it will be perceived by others. Requests may be turned down because managers fear a negative impact on the business. Be prepared to give well thought-out, positive responses to the following kinds of questions:
- Will you still be able to contribute as a team member?
- How will any change affect your colleagues?
- What will be the overall impact on your work?
- How could this change positively affect the business?
Give your company as much notice of your interest as possible. It demonstrates that you're still committed to the company and care about how the changes will impact your work.
Point out that you'll be more productive and experience less stress because of the change. Add that you will need fewer days off to attend to your other responsibilities. You might also reassure the organization that you will be available for additional work in times of heavy demand. Finally, point out the historical value of your reliability and employment has been to the company.
If you are a member of a union, this request might also be subject to limitations or other provisions of your employment contract. Be sure to check that out first since there may be a binding inability to apply flextime on a personal basis.
Naturally, it is in your interest to present the best possible case, but don't forget to follow-up on all inquiries you make to the union, the human resources department, your boss, and your colleagues.
If you're an employer or manager, recognize that the benefits of retaining skilled and experienced staff will almost always outweigh the costs of implementing a flextime system. In addition to saving the expense of recruiting and training replacements for employees who leave because of scheduling issues, productivity will likely rise. However, initially, be prepared for administrative costs involved in establishing home offices and high speed, secure, Internet connections for employees who may choose to work remotely.
Keep focused on meeting the most important needs of your business. Flextime is only sustainable if it doesn't hinder your business's ability to perform efficiently and profitably.Embark on a flextime work plan only if your employees are interested in exploring how flexible arrangements would affect the business and customers, as well as meet their needs. Determine what, if any, re-organization might be involved in creating a flextime program. Ensure that your staff understand what the business needs from them in terms of reliable productivity if a flextime program is to be successful.
Establish a policy about alternative work schedules. Involve employees and discuss these ideas with staff as you think through an appropriate policy. Also develop a procedure to deal with requests for flextime, and how staff performance will be monitored. Make sure everyone is aware of these procedures. Implement the plans with the understanding that it will evolve with experience. Together with staff, review how well the process works, and assess the impact of flextime on the business as well as individuals and work teams.
From an employee perspective:
You need to make sure that you've done your homework when you seek flexible hours. First, be aware of your rights and any union limitations. Second, check your company's position on the issue and follow any existing procedures properly when making a request. When you discuss this with your manager, remember to highlight your commitment to your role and the company. Think through potential questions he or she might ask you about the effects of flextime on your workload and of its potential impact on your colleagues.
Your company may not necessarily agree to your request, although it does have a responsibility to consider it seriously. If you're open to compromise and willing to help make your request fit into the needs of the organization, then it's more likely that you'll end up with a result you want.
If your request is based on legislation allowing caregivers to benefit from time off or flextime, there may be an established set of legal criteria to meet. Be prepared to demonstrate your qualification for consideration under all applicable laws. Legal requirements should be posted in the workplace or available through the human resources department.
Don't forget that if you reduce your hours, it's not just your salary that may be affected. Pension contributions and other benefits will also change. Be sure that when you decide to reduce your workweek, you'll be able to cope financially. More importantly, however, if you decide to work from home, be sure you have the motivation and time management skills to maintain focus on your work and keep your commitments.
From an employer's perspective:
Social change is usually slower than seems necessary. First, create an environment of openness and mutual respect, if it doesn't already exist. Second, invite employees into the change process and encourage them to participate in the creation of the final plan. Together, explore the proper balance between the demands of your business and their personal needs as employees. The best solution will give them the opportunity to contribute fully at work while also being able to fulfill family responsibilities, or meet other personal needs.
Finding a work-life balance shouldn't be cause for disapproval, or worse, a career limitation within your organization. Remember, it isn't that employees are asking to do less, they are just asking to organize their time differently. In the end, you will both be better off.
Employees who aren't in the office during conventional hours may feel isolated. Plan regular feedback meetings in the office, as well as online, and organize social events to bring staff together from time to time.
Avery, Christine and Zabel, Diane,