Rating your boss's flexible scheduling


Published: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 12:11 a.m.

Facts

The best flexible work practices:

  • Give employees more control over their time.
  • Make better work-life balance a goal.
  • Apply broadly to all kinds of employees.
    With employers from big law firms down to the local pizza joint promoting "flexible schedules," how can you size up these pitches?

  • The flap over Wal-Mart's move into computerized scheduling of its employees is the latest of many signs that work hours are in upheaval.
    Mobile-office technology, the 24/7 economy and computerized scheduling are making work hours more flexible. So why are some workers celebrating while others are howling in protest? At SAS Institute, a software concern with 10,000 employees in Cary, N.C., 20,000 eager jobseekers swamped its Web site with applications after a "60 Minutes" newscast publicized its flexibility. At Wal-Mart, nimbler scheduling has drawn worker petitions and protests.
    With employers from big law firms down to the local pizza joint promoting "flexible schedules," how can you size up these pitches? I set forth a new way to tell how well an employer is managing time. I see companies in three stages, from the least employee-friendly to the most. My yardstick is based on three measures: How much control do employees get over their time? What is the employer's purpose? And is flexibility being allocated fairly?
  • Stage one: Employer takes all.
    At this stage, companies use flexibility to benefit the company. The purpose is to cut labor costs or match staffing to fluctuating customer demand. Your company is probably in this stage if your schedule changes often but you have little say in when you work. Also, these employers tend to apply flexibility only to hourly workers, while salaried people's time is managed differently.
    Wal-Mart this year is rolling out to all 3,400 stores an automated scheduling system that has computers, not managers, creating workers' shifts. This helps the company match staffing to customer traffic, says Celia Swanson, a senior vice president.
    While some Wal-Mart workers say they like the system, the bottom line is that Wal-Mart's purpose is to improve customer service and cut costs. Many workers will get less control over their time, because the human factor - a store manager who might be moved by a worker's pleas for personal or family time - plays a diminished role. And workers must make sacrifices to gain a measure of control, agreeing to work weekends and nights to get first dibs on the schedules they want.
  • Stage two: The policy stage.
    These companies are light years ahead of Stage One. They adopt written flexibility policies, mainly to attract and retain skilled workers. Usage, however, is low, and many setups are handed out on an ad hoc basis, risking perceptions of unfairness. Your company may be in this stage if only a few employees work nontraditional schedules while the rest labor a standard 8-to-5 and longer.
    In response to employee surveys ''clamoring'' for flexibility, Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2000 began offering six alternative setups, from job-sharing to compressed workweeks, says Stacey Gibson, a senior director. Later, ''we heard from employees there was no equitable process for getting these,'' she says. Some managers were afraid to say no, while others turned down requests that probably should have been approved, she says. The company is moving beyond this stage by training managers to weigh flexible-work requests wisely and to view them as a productivity tool. Two-thirds of employees now say in surveys they have enough flexibility to manage their time well, and ''we're going to keep pushing it,'' Ms. Gibson says.
  • Stage three: Culture change.
    Flexibility becomes a way of working at this stage, and companies have two purposes. They want to improve productivity or service, and they want employees to have enough control over their lives to stay healthy and happy. Your company is probably in this stage if flexible work hours are the rule rather than the exception. At Communispace, a Watertown, Mass., online market-research concern, all 110 employees, from the office administrator on up, have flexible hours. Employees appreciate the flexibility, which enables them to be responsive to clients in the evenings without working burnout hours. Flexibility isn't just an accommodation, says CEO Diane Hessan, ''it's mission-critical for the business.''
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