Flexible Work Arrangements: Not Why, But How

Julie Shenkman
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When consultant Sandra Sullivan arrives at a corporation to talk about trying flexible work schedules, she's often struck by contrasting attitudes. Managers clearly signal their distrust by listening to her with their arms crossed, but other employees hang on her every word.

Sullivan, through her Connecticut-based company, Flex It, has been working for 10 years with companies like United Technologies and GE Capital. At a recent meeting in her home state, she told HR pros that the economic and demographic pressures on today's workplace make it impractical for them to ask why they should let workers try things like telecommuting and compressed work weeks.

"This is no longer a 'why' conversation, it's a 'how' conversation," she said. The more popular flexible work options, according to Sullivan, are:

  • Telecommuting. It's the fastest-growing form of flexible work, she said, especially among men, who make up 57 percent of its users.
  • Compressed workweeks. These come in various flavors, she said, like the 9/80 - putting in nine full workdays over a two-week period, or 80 hours.
  • Job sharing. It's done almost exclusively by women, Sullivan said.

Motivating factors

For 30 to 40 percent of Sullivan's clients, the primary reason for pursuing options like telecommuting is saving space. Providing office space for the average American worker costs $18,000 a year. In New York City, where the standard calculation is $84 per square foot per employee, it can cost as much as $75,000.

"And we haven't even started to pay you yet," Sullivan said. "Never mind about benefits and so forth. When companies are out to cut costs, as most are these days, they start with the head. We're now down to skeletons with most organizations."

But from the employee's standpoint, it's most often about demographics. With more women in the workforce and more workers overall dealing with the care of children or elderly parents, the 9-to-5 schedule increasingly becomes untenable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4 percent of the population belong to a "Leave it to Beaver" family - as in two parents, two kids. Eighty-seven percent of the workforce has "dependent-care issues," Sullivan said. Forty percent have eldercare issues.

Many employers, Sullivan said, don't want to know about those concerns, taking the attitude that says, "There's a door. Leave it outside while you come in and do what you do." But to demonstrate the impracticality of that attitude, she asked her audience, "How many of you in the last eight minutes have thought of something other than flexible work arrangements?" Most people raised their hands.

"You're physically here, you're looking right at me, but you're not here," she said, explaining that it's much the same for employees who come to work distracted by family issues. Other factors driving employers to flexible work schedules, according to Sullivan, include:

  • the labor shortage. With unemployment in most places still at a 15-year low, it can be crucial to recruiting and retaining people, particularly baby boomers, who have begun looking for ways to spend less time in the workplace, if not retire altogether.
  • technology making it easier to work outside regular offices. Sullivan borrowed one audience member's Palm Pilot. "I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my kid that are bigger than this," she said. "Her life is in my hand." Devices like that make it hard to justify keeping people anchored to their offices, she said.
  • the globalization of the economy. With more and more companies doing business with each other across time zones, Johnson said, it makes sense to let employees work unconventional hours. She complained of the "sheer arrogance" of Eastern Standard Time Zone companies, estimating that 75 to 80 percent of business world operates outside of it. "And all of these factors are becoming more acute," she said.


The chief obstacle to flexible work arrangements, Sullivan said, is "face time" - managers' instinctive need to see their subordinates working. The managers fear that if those employees are working from home or alternative hours, they might not really be working. "I ask them, 'How do you know your employees are effective now?' The answer, always, is: 'We watch them.'" Watching "makes perfect sense - for the industrial age." But it makes much less sense for the information age, according to Sullivan.

For one thing, she said, it's wrong to assume that "the more hours you work, the more productive you are." Specifically, the regular workday hours may not be the most effective ones, Sullivan said. She recalled hearing one man explain that he goes in to work at 5:30 in the morning, "before the morning zoo" of coworkers arrives at 8:30. "What that guy gets done in those three hours in the morning could take him all day otherwise," she said.

"What I'm suggesting is that there is some work that's done way more productively at different times and different places, and that is what flexibility is all about." So when employers talk with their employees about flexible-work arrangements, they need to begin asking "if we're having an hours-based conversation, or a productivity-based conversation," she said. "This is a 100-year habit we're up against."

But don't employees need at least some face-to-face contact at least some of the time with co-workers and supervisors? Yes, Sullivan said, explaining that she'd "never recommend going to either extreme" of always coming to the office or never coming to the office. Personal contact is important, she said. "I'm a pretty extroverted person, and I couldn't work more than two days straight from my home. It depends on the individual." But at the same time, meetings have their drawbacks. "You'd be amazed at what a meeting costs" in terms of productivity, Sullivan said.

Putting workers on a telecommuting or compressed-week schedule requires some coaching, she said, so that they can work alone yet collaborate often and well enough with colleagues. "You're taking a baseball player and putting them on a football field," she said. "These are very ingrained habits you're dealing with."

She had one warning about flexible-schedule employees who absolutely must attend meetings: "I recommend that nobody have third-party meetings in their home. They should be held in the office or on a neutral site." One audience member asked if workplace-safety regulations should be a concern in letting employees work from home. Sullivan noted that a year and a half ago, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled new regulations for home offices, but the ensuing uproar resulted in most being rescinded.

Getting to 'how'

When an employee asks about working out a flexible work arrangement, Sullivan said, the worst question a manager can ask is, "Why?" For one thing, asking "why" breeds issues like discrimination, entitlement, and accommodation, she said - especially when some employees are told no but others get to work from home at certain times, "as long as you don't tell anyone."

"There are legal ramifications to managers asking, 'Why,'" she said, noting that the employees seeking flexible arrangements tend to be in certain demographic groups. "Historically, it's been women with children." Rather, Sullivan said, the question to ask is, "How?" "The reason for doing it is irrelevant," she said. "The question for me, as your employer, is, 'How are you going to get your work done?'" Doing that shifts the onus onto the employee, who must now justify the proposal. Failing to do so renders any other concerns moot.

Sullivan recalled working the day before with a woman on the possibility of her going to a compressed workweek. "The woman said, 'There is no way I can get my work done in four 10-hour days.' OK, then, that was it. For her, a compressed work week was not the answer."


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