Flexibility Still Meeting Resistance

By Joseph Coombs Jul 1, 2011
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Participation in many forms of flexible work arrangements has not changed much in the past five years, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2011 Employee Benefits survey report, which captures the responses of 600 HR professionals and was released in June.

In fact, even as technology has improved and the standard 40-hour workweek has become dated at many companies, the percentage of employers offering flextime and ad hoc telecommuting actually dropped from 2007 to 2011—from 58 percent to 53 percent and from 48 percent to 42 percent, respectively.

The survey results indicate that perhaps cultural changes will be needed in many organizations if flexible work is to become more widespread in the United States. Options such as telecommuting and compressed workweeks may go a long way toward boosting workers’ job satisfaction levels, but executives and supervisors need to buy into the plans.

Employers are experimenting with atypical work arrangements and benefits. Some respondents to the survey said their organizations offer flexible schedules and compressed workweeks—working longer but fewer days in exchange for a day off each week—during the summer. Others give employees time off to exercise during the day. One company gives workers an extra day off in December for Christmas shopping.

Some employers give employees all the time off that they want: Employers Resource Council, a human resource services company based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, has no schedule and no limit for earned vacation and leave time. The 30 staff members simply have to make sure that time away from the office does not interfere with operations or their performance. And workers are granted unlimited vacation and sick time at Robbinsville, N.J.-based TriCore Inc., a payroll and benefits outsourcing company with 20 employees.

Overall, however, such policies are not common. The survey’s closest measure to an unlimited vacation and leave policy is the “results-only work environment,” or ROWE, which allows employees to work wherever and whenever they wish as long as they complete projects on time. As with other flexible work policies, it may take a while for ROWE to catch on: Only 2 percent of companies offered the benefit in 2011, up from 1 percent in 2010 and down from 3 percent in 2009.

But with employees’ job satisfaction increasingly tied to perks such as flexible workweeks and telecommuting, HR professionals need to be familiar with these options. At the very least, they can research the benefits of these practices and share them with executives, many of whom may still believe that workers need to be at their desks to be productive.

Clearly, flexible arrangements cannot be applied uniformly. But HR professionals can help establish a culture of flexibility, even where these practices are not typical. Assembly line workers cannot telecommute. But shift-sharing at a manufacturing plant with 24-hour operations could be a viable option, and an HR leader’s expertise would be required to form the policy.

As technology evolves and work continues to stretch beyond the hours of 9 to 5, the trend toward flexible work arrangements will accelerate. Members of the HR profession will be central to managing these changes effectively.

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