The Lure of Workplace Flexibility

The concept of a flexible workplace is based on the idea that it’s possible to work harder and smarter away from the office or during a shorter workweek. The question most employers have is, “Will it work?”  

Supporters say the benefits of a flexible workplace include better work-life balance; improved employee morale; lower turnover rates; decreased burnout; increased creativity; and loyal employees who give maximum effort to meet managers’ expectations. They also say that tailoring work environments and cultures to employees’ needs can attract talent.

Employers interested in a flexible workplace may wonder how they can maintain high productivity and performance levels in a less bureaucratic setting. Can flexibility and productivity be balanced?

Employers who have made the flexible workplace concept work for their company say that to make it work you must start slowly. The Svartedalens nursing home in Gothenburg, Sweden, selected employees to participate in an experiment to see if 30-hour weeks would be a good fit for the company and its employees. Employees worked six-hour days instead of eight for the same pay. The New York Times reported that early results were promising, showing reduced absenteeism, improved productivity and better worker health.

Types of Flexibility

Not all employees want to or are able to work 40 hour weeks. Flextime options include:

•    Part-time employment is defined as workweeks that are between 10 to 30 hours. Often, two employees share a full work week. This type of schedule is particularly appealing to university students and working mothers who need time to study or take care of their children. Employers, having difficulty filling a position, can sometimes more readily find two part-timers to fill a position

•    Telecommuting allows employees to work away from the office — whether at home or in a coffee shop or park. Telecommuters can be either full or part-time. Telecommuting saves employees the cost of gasoline and vehicle upkeep, as well as clothing and eating out costs. Employers avoid the cost of providing office space, equipment, paper, and electricity.

•    Freelancing is when an individual is hired for a specific project on a seasonal, full or part-time basis. Hiring a freelancer saves the employer the cost of paying full-time wages and benefits, while the individual reserves the right to choose only the jobs that interest them.

•    Flexible work hours allow employees to choose the hours they want to work. Employers usually define a core time that must be covered and employees can choose when to start and leave their shifts.

Minimizing Risks

Experts recommend employers have a clear goal of what they want to accomplish. For example, is the main focus improved productivity, happy employees or reduced energy costs? (Coincidentally, lower prioritized goals will often be achieved as well.)

When you decide on a goal, test the concept with your employees. Let’s say your goal involves going to a four-day workweek. If your plan is for everyone to work 10-hour days to get one extra day off each week, you might find some resistance. Working 10-hour days means less time to run errands on those days and can make arranging childcare more difficult. It also can leave employees more tired.

Or, shortening the number of hours worked, but also reducing wages, could be met with resistance. On the other hand, one employer, a web-based software development firm in Chicago, Ill., found they could give employees Fridays off without the need to reduce wages because they discovered people got the same amount of work done, but were happier and more focused.

One of the biggest concerns employers have is how to best serve customers to be sure they get the attention they need and deserve — even if employees are working away from the office or are working shorter weeks. Consider staggering working hours so key office hours are covered. Some companies schedule employees 80 hours over nine business days, which gives them an extra day off every two weeks. The key is not to have all employees take the same days off.