Future Focus

Work Turns Flexible

By Jennifer Schramm Mar 1, 2009

March 2009 CoverFour-day workweeks, job sharing, sabbaticals and long-distance telecommuting have been discussed in the past generally in the context of providing employees with flexible work options and supporting work/life balance. But the recession may change that context.

These work options are now being considered as tactics for coping with a weak economy, particularly as a way to avoid layoffs that have a negative impact on productivity, motivation and turnover.

But if a number of organizations start to offer such options, it could establish them as more accepted ways of working, even after the economy recovers.

A poll conducted last October by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed that as the economy began to turn sharply downward, many employers were looking for alternatives to layoffs.

Besides adopting traditional approaches such as attrition, hiring freezes and reducing the use of contingent workers, employers were encouraging employees to use their vacation time and cut back their hours; some were implementing shorter workweeks throughout their organizations and offering job-sharing arrangements.

In fact, many employers have been dialing down employees’ hours to reduce labor costs. The need to reduce headcount may make some employers more open to offering unpaid sabbaticals to select employees.

In addition, some state and local governments are implementing four-day workweeks, keeping their facilities closed three days a week. Although the reason for doing so may be a reduction in the costs of maintaining buildings, the result is an important change in working hours.

The influence of economic conditions on alternative work arrangements has already been seen in the realm of telecommuting, where volatility in gasoline prices created major impetus. In a May 2008 SHRM poll, 18 percent of respondents said they offered telecommuting as a way to help employees deal with rising fuel costs. By September 2008, the number had risen to 40 percent.

In addition, two recession-related factors could lead more employees to seek out long-distance telecommuting options for at least part of their time on the job.

One factor, the slow housing market, makes it more difficult for people to move for new jobs.

The other factor, the weak job market, appears to be causing an increase in so-called commuter marriages as spouses find they have to work in separate cities out of economic necessity.

Although alternative work arrangements may become more accepted as ways to respond to severe economic challenges, they could gain a foothold in many organizations regardless of the condition of the economy. On the other hand, such special arrangements could slip into decline if employees, concerned about job security, became reluctant to ask for them.

As always, HR professionals will be at the forefront of organizations’ efforts to leverage these changes to improve employee loyalty and satisfaction and to implement more nimble and effective organizational responses to rapid changes in the business environment.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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