The Gift of Time

Employers in any industry can offer flexible work arrangements to retain valuable employees.

By Dori Meinert Nov 1, 2011
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What do many employees crave more than a pay raise?

Time, according to numerous studies.

Time to go to their children's basketball games or to watch them in the school play. Time to take their parents to the doctor or their dog to the vet. Time to wait for the plumber or to handle any number of problems life throws at them.

In a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) earlier this year, 86 percent of the 550 employees responding said flexibility to balance their work and personal life is an important or very important aspect of job satisfaction.

Acknowledging the pressures on employees, many HR professionals are searching for ways to provide the flexibility employees need while helping their companies achieve business goals.

"Some employers consider workplace flexibility because they're losing some of their top talent," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute (FWI) in New York City. They want to avoid costly turnover. Others seek to attract the best workers from competitors.

Flexible work arrangements are more commonly available to salaried professionals, particularly those in financial or information services, who can grab their laptops and work at home or on a plane. Employees in production and in jobs that require face-to-face contact with customers, for example, are far less likely to have flexibility in when and where they work.

Yet they can have more flexibility, too. "It takes a little bit of extra work to figure out how," says Galinsky, whose organization has partnered with SHRM to promote flexible work arrangements.

To find out how employers are meeting this challenge, check out these recent winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Winners are selected through a rigorous application process administered by FWI.

Turner Construction Co.
Winning site: Chicago office
185 employees in Chicago, of 5,078 nontrades employees nationwide

Six years ago, executives at Turner Construction Co.’s Chicago office realized they had a problem. Employees obviously were disgruntled; the voluntary turnover rate was a troublesome 21 percent.

The construction industry has a notorious reputation for the toll it takes on employees. The market is competitive. Clients and project requirements are demanding. Staying on schedule is critical. Employees often work long hours and weekends to meet deadlines.

"Our senior managers have made a concerted effort over the last few years to communicate to staff how much they’re valued and appreciated, to understand and empathize with their own personal needs, and to work with them to make Turner a better place to work," says Tracy Hagen, SPHR, human resources manager for the Great Lakes region.

To show employees they are appreciated, managers should stay attuned to individual needs, she advises. For example, one of Turner’s field superintendents wants to attend his son’s games and practices with a traveling baseball team. "We work to make sure he is able to do that as often as possible because that’s very important to him," Hagen says. "In turn, we know that he will give 100 percent to Turner when we need it. It’s that give-and-take between an employee and an employer that makes these kinds of flexible work arrangements so valuable."

Last year, the voluntary turnover rate was just 3.8 percent—proof that the emphasis on flexibility works, she says. In addition, the percentage of Chicago employees who say on surveys that they are being listened to increased from 59 percent in 2005 to 72 percent in 2008. The 2011 employee survey isn’t finished yet.

Telecommuting isn’t an option for field engineers, construction site superintendents and project managers. Instead, Turner offers them a rare perk: Each Friday in the summer—peak time for the construction industry—most of the staff is let off at 2 p.m. so they have a jump-start on the weekend.

The flexible work options are available only to salaried professionals and office support staff becausecollective bargaining agreements govern working conditions for laborers. To provide supervision, skeleton crews sometimes alternate Fridays.

It’s not ‘impossible. You can figure out ways to make these alternative schedules work.’
—Tracy Hagen, SPHR, human resources manager for the Great Lakes region, Turner Construction Co.

It’s not "impossible. You can figure out ways to make these alternative schedules work," Hagen says.

Employees in the Chicago office also receive their birthdays off.

Turner managers are evaluated on how well they promote and implement flexible work options with their staffs. "It’s been communicated from the top down how important it is to engage our staff and create an environment where they want to come to work," Hagen says.

As the economy improves, managers have already seen competitors vying for their employees. "There’s a lot of effort that goes into training our employees—and we can’t afford to lose them," Hagen says .

Bon Secours Health System
Winning sites: Richmond, Va., and Hampton Roads, Va.
7,300 employees in Richmond and 4,700 employees in Hampton Roads, of 21,000 in seven states

Long before leaders in many other industries got around to it, health care managers experimented with flexible work arrangements to help them provide round-the-clock medical care to patients. In recent years, a shortage of nurses and other health care workers has forced HR teams in health care settings to get even more creative in attracting workers.

The team at Bon Secours Richmond Health System uses a variety of flexible work schedules to attract and retain staff, especially for hard-to-fill evening and weekend shifts at its facilities: four hospitals, a free-standing emergency department, a health center, a college of nursing and an assortment of medical practices. Employees can work compressed workweeks with options including four 10-hour shifts or three 12-hour shifts a week. Other shift options include weekends only with enhanced pay, four- and eight-hour shifts, and seven days on followed by seven days off.

Women make up 85 percent of the workforce, and the flexible schedules help meet their needs, says Dawn Trivette, administrative director for work and family services for the Richmond facilities. An employee just out of college often prefers to work full time and may have no problem with a rotating schedule. But employees with children may want a fixed work schedule that matches their families’ school or child care hours. Another employee with several children may prefer to work part time, she says.

Full benefits—including employer-assisted housing—for part-time employees working as few as 16 hours a week encourage some to work part time who might otherwise leave the workforce, Trivette says. Those part-time employees help managers fill shifts on the busiest days.

In applying for the Sloan award and others, HR professionals compare Bon Secours’ practices to what other employers do. The first time they applied for Working Mother magazine’s100 Best Companies list, the health system didn’t make the cut. However, going through the stringent application process gave HR leaders ideas about what they could offer new working parents, for instance. The next year, 1998, the company made the Working Mother list—and has remained there every year.

Trivette credits Bon Secours’ flexible work arrangements for lowering its first-year employee turnover rates from 50 percent in 2006 to 10 percent in 2010. The national first-year median turnover rate for hospitals is 28.3 percent, according to The Advisory Board Co. Some estimate the cost of hiring and retraining a new nurse to be as much as three times a nurse’s annual salary, so the reduction in turnover translates into savings, she says.

Employee engagement scores have risen from 3.6 on a five-point scale in 2005 to 4.55 in 2010.

Trivette says communication helps ensure that employees feel comfortable requesting changes in their work arrangements. Otherwise, employees may not raise scheduling problems with their managers for fear of rejection. By reading success stories in the employee newsletter, workers can learn about possible solutions to their dilemmas. "We really focus on and pay attention and give kudos to people who find innovative solutions," Trivette says.

In 2010, 85 percent of Bon Secours employees used a formal or informal flexible schedule, while 45 percent worked a compressed workweek. Another 25 percent moved to a temporary or part-time work schedule, 10 percent shared their job with another person, and 3 percent telecommuted.

In small group lunches with the chief executive officer, employees have repeated what national surveys have shown—they value having control over their time. 

Futura Industries
Clearfield, Utah
208 employeesIs there room for flexibility on the factory floor? Leaders of Futura Industries know.

The aluminum extrusion manufacturer employs 158 production workers, and 85 percent have taken advantage of flexible work times without sacrificing pay.

The production floor operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Employees work three 12-hour shifts and an eight-hour shift every other week or four 10-hour shifts, a system that makes it easier when someone needs time off, says HR Manager Spencer Burt. When someone wants to attend a child’s school event, the department manager talks to his floor managers to see if they can handle the work with one less employee or if they need to fill in with someone scheduled to work later in the week.

Managers at Futura’s plant in Clearfield, Utah, cross-train employees in different departments so they can find someone to fill in when an individual needs to be away. In fact, such training allows managers to accommodate some Hispanic workers who want a monthlong vacation to visit their native countries, Burt explains.

Flexible work-time policies helped one female production worker who asked to be put on the night shift during the summer when her children were out of school. The manager changed her schedule. "Once school is back in, we’ll rearrange her schedule to what works best for us … so there’s dual flexibility," Burt says.

To request flextime, production workers fill out a form and submit it to their managers. Then managers schedule them to make up the work at another time so they don’t lose pay. Elsewhere, granting such requests might be viewed as too time-consuming or bothersome. "It’s minimal cost," Burt says, "but what you get in return from a satisfied, engaged employee is well worth it."

Five years ago, the company used a staffing agency to fill production positions. At that time, just one in every 20 new hires lasted more than 90 days, he says. Since Burt began recruiting and hiring in-house, the turnover rate has averaged 10 percent annually.

Companies don’t make profit—it’s people. People make the profit," he says." If we take care of our employees, they’ll be more engaged and more committed to our company."

Futura’s managers may have figured out the magic formula for making flexibility work in a factory setting. In addition to winning a Sloan award, the company made the state of Utah’s Best Places to Work list.

U.S. Bank
Winning site: Minneapolis region
9,700 employees, of 62,200 nationwide

Many employers just assume it’s impossible to offer flexibility to hourly workers, especially those whose jobs require face-to-face contact with customers. At U.S. Bank, however, even the tellers have flexible work options.

The bank, with headquarters in Minneapolis, offers tellers nationwide compressed workweeks, a schedule that works particularly well in branches inside grocery stores that are open seven days a week and evenings. The bank employs many part-time workers, including college students whose work hours can be adjusted to meet their class schedules, says Katie Lawler, employee relations director.

Managers don’t need to guess when they need more tellers on hand. The bank gives them a computer-generated staffing model that analyzes customer transactions and wait times to determine what time of day and days of the week or month are historically the busiest.

They might know that in the afternoon on Tuesdays, they tend to have lulls," Lawler says. When tellers have family or school events they want to attend, they can usually work it out with their managers. "We are a large company. We can borrow staff from other branches to help cover," she notes.

Tellers can’t telecommute as some employees can, but they can participate inother flexible work arrangements. These include job sharing, temporary voluntary reduced work time, part-time hours, reduced hours for those transitioning to retirement and schedules that allow employees to work only on days when their children are in school.

The HR team began promoting formal flexible work options to managers and employees, as well as potential new hires, in 2008. Managers were already allowing flexible arrangements in some business units, but HR professionals wanted to provide more structure to the program to ensure consistency as flexible programs were offered to more employees, Lawler says. They sought to build a foundation for managers in business units to analyze business needs and determine the options they can offer.

Creating a formal program also recognizes that in today’s economy "being flexible is essential to retaining top talent and keeping them engaged," she adds.

DMC Athletics & Rehabilitation
Cedar Knolls, N.J.
16 employees

The president of DMC Athletics & Rehabilitation sayshe has found the way to keep employees motivated and happy: unlimited paid vacation time.

Some might wonder whether employees would abuse this generosity. But David Cunic says that hasn’t been a problem.

Why do you take a vacation? You need a mental break. You’re stressed-out, or you don’t like the job. If you like where you work, if you’re not stressed-out at work, then you’re not going to want to take a lot of vacation time," he reasons.

On average, DMC’s 14 physical therapists and personal trainers and two support workers each take about 23 vacation days a year.

Since the company was formed in 2006, Cunic has had to speak to only one employee about overuse. She took 10 paid vacation days in her first three months of employment. "We told her, ‘We’ll give you the vacation days, but in the next three months, we can’t give more,’ " he recalls. She was appreciative. "If you treat someone like a human being, and you’re rational about it, you’re not going to have issues."

Almost all of DMC’s employees work a "potential schedule." They are scheduled for a certain number of hours, but if they don’t have patients or clients, they don’t have to be in the office. And, they have a say about their schedules.

One trainer works a split shift every day, leaving from noon to 3 p.m. for martial arts training. A physical therapist, the single father of two young boys, needed to be home with them after school, so his schedule was changed so he can leave earlier. In exchange, he pitches in on Friday nights or Saturdays.

"We try to work with everyone’s schedule, and if it can be done, it can be done," Cunic says.

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

What flexible work options does your organization offer? Are your employees using them? What are the obstacles? How can HR professionals overcome those obstacles?

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