Time Squeeze

By Mary E. Medland Nov 1, 2004

HR Magazine, November 2004

Time-off policies can either discourage or encourage employees to keep their work and life in balance.

Employers’ balancing act on paid leave for their workers has become trickier than ever. As they cope with rising global competitiveness and constant pressures to increase productivity, employers throughout the United States are also confronted with growing employee requests for job flexibility so they can achieve greater work/life balance.

Employees by and large want more freedom to use both their time at work and their paid-time-off allotments in ways that can help them achieve balance between their job responsibilities and their obligations away from the job. They are looking for workplace accommodations such as flexible scheduling, telecommuting, job-sharing and other arrangements that can help them deal with diverse and growing demands on their personal time.

And although employers are concerned about the potential for lost productivity, most are realistic and understand that in today’s world some personal responsibilities must be dealt with between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

In fact, the wall separating time on the job and time for tending to personal matters is regularly being breached—as it has been for some time. In a study this year on employees’ use of the Internet for personal rather than job-related purposes, 51 percent admitted to doing so for one to five hours a week. The study was done by Harris Interactive for Websense Inc., a San Diego-based firm whose software and services enable companies to monitor and manage internal Internet use. This year’s findings on employees’ Internet use were consistent with previous years’ survey results, said Websense.

“With the continual blurring of the line between work and play,” according to the survey report, “most employees do not feel that being able to use the Internet at work for personal tasks makes them less productive. In fact, 27 percent feel that it makes them more productive, and 57 percent feel there is no change in their productivity one way or another.”

A 2000 survey commissioned by Xylo—a work/life services provider that’s now part of the Ottawa-based recruitment and employment services firm Workstream Inc.—found that 75 percent of workers handle some personal matters, such as paying bills and making appointments, while at the office. The same survey also noted, however, that 40 percent of those working away from home reported that they work late or take work home at least once a week.

“My guess is that having to take work home while taking care of personal things at work has always been the case,” says Kathleen Strukoff, SPHR, a Baltimore-based vice president of Aon Consulting and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Total Rewards Panel of experts on compensation and benefits. “There is no longer the stay-at-home wife to handle all of a family’s scheduling, child care and so forth,” she says.

“Everything becomes blurred with technology,” Strukoff continues. “In some ways, workers feel that they are at their employers’ disposal 24/7 and, as a result, feel justified taking care of personal details while at the office.”

What’s more, some employers lend a hand, she says. “I see a lot of companies trying to help their staff with child care and elder care assistance. It makes more sense for an employer to offer a professional referral service that can assist employees with elder care difficulties than to have the employee try to sort through every option on her own.”

Strukoff notes, however, that certain tasks, such as making medical appointments, usually can be done only during working hours, while others, such as making personal travel arrangements on the Internet, can be done away from the office.

A Matter of Time

Employer policies can affect not only how much time off employees have but also how comfortable they feel taking that time.

Part of the issue, of course, is whether U.S. workers get enough paid leave to handle their off-the-job obligations and achieve work/life balance. Are employers stingy? “It’s an accepted fact that U.S. workers don’t get as much time off as their European counterparts,” says Lynne Sport, CCP, director of HR and administration at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

U.S. workers with 10 years of service at medium-sized and large companies got an average of just under 17 paid vacation days and about nine paid holidays in 1997—the latest such data available—according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Germany, by comparison, about 70 percent of employees get six weeks of paid vacation each year, and most of the rest get about five weeks. Workers in some other European countries get even more than the Germans receive.

But work/life balance is not just about the amount of paid leave that employees receive, says Jeff Gerhart, CEBS, director of compensation and benefits for Pinnacle Health System in Harrisburg, Pa. It’s also about how the time is used, he says, and patterns of use vary from country to country. “In Europe, people use their time differently,” he says. “Families will go on a picnic or do something to enrich their lives, whereas Americans will stay home to paint the living room.”

Lumped Sums

Of course, employers can’t be responsible for how employees choose to spend their time off. But one approach adopted by many has had a side effect of giving employees “permission” to take time off for rejuvenating: paid-time-off arrangements. This long-standing practice gives employees a fixed amount of paid time off per year that they can use in any way they choose—vacation, doctor visits, recuperation, elder care, family outings—with no questions asked.

As paid-time-off (PTO) programs gathered steam in the 1990s, employers started noticing that employees were more likely to use time off for personal reasons rather than solely for illnesses and formal vacations—or at least admit to it.

PTO programs are in place at about 29 percent of the companies that responded to the SHRM 2004 Benefits Survey, and they are widely viewed as useful not only for staffing purposes and administering time-off benefits but also for helping to meet employees’ needs for greater work-time flexibility.

In doing away with a traditional program of separate vacation and sick-leave allotments and adopting a PTO program, some experts say, a company is sending a message to workers that it really does not need to know why they’re absent, but it does need to know when they plan to be out.

And then there’s the honesty dividend, as some consultants and HR professionals note. “With PTO, people do not call in sick when they’re really going shopping,” says Strukoff. What’s more, she says, a PTO program can eliminate the need for HR to play policeman on employees’ reasons for taking time off. As employees see their managers or co-workers use PTO to balance work and personal responsibilities, it becomes more accepted practice throughout the organization. This builds a culture that places importance on keeping that balance.

Another policy that sends a signal that the organization values an employee’s need for time away from the job to rejuvenate is to award time off based on years of experience, rather than accruing it based on tenure at the company. Accruing leave based on tenure, some experts note, is a relic from a time when people remained with one company for many years—and that’s not indicative of today’s workforce, says Gary Kushner, president and CEO of Kushner & Co., an HR consulting firm in Portage, Mich.

For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, based in Washington, D.C., has had a PTO program “for about 10 years,” says Shannon DiBari, vice president for HR. The Chamber’s policy does not force new employees to start from scratch in their PTO allotments, however. DiBari says each newcomer’s PTO base is structured according to a formula that takes into account all of the work experience that each new hire brings to the organization. A person who joins the Chamber with 20 years of experience in the workforce will start with a larger amount of PTO than someone hired straight out of college.

Who’s Counting?

If giving employees implicit “permission” to take time off for personal rejuvenation through PTO programs and allocation based on experience, instead of tenure, doesn’t get the message across, you can go a giant step further, as VML, a marketing firm in Kansas City, Mo., has done.

VML sets no maximum on paid time off—only a minimum.› “We’ve never had a set vacation policy in the history of our company,” says Kristi Veitch, human resource director and a partner at VML. “All we request is that employees work with their supervisors, and that they take a minimum of two weeks off every year. And there is no maximum number of paid-time-off days.”

The concept alone is enough to make most employers blanch. But it may not be as risky an approach as it might seem. It goes hand in hand with VML’s hiring practices: The company’s vacation policy is not going to be abused by the kinds of people that VML hires. The company, Veitch says, makes sure it hires only those individuals it knows to be professional, mature, reliable and responsible.

Although time off “is recorded on employees’ time sheets,” Veitch adds, the company “really does not track the time per se. We don’t say, for instance, that this person has had three weeks off and therefore cannot take another day.”

Doug Newman, a VML account director, believes the policy demonstrates upper management’s confidence that the people running the business day to day will make intelligent decisions about taking time off. “When I got married last year,” he says, “I ended up taking more time off than I had the year before or will take this year. This policy really allowed me to have more flexibility. It truly allows teams to decide what is reasonable in light of what they must get accomplished at work.”

VML was recognized this year as one of the top small companies to work for in the United States. The selection was made by the San Francisco-based Great Place to Work Institute, which chose and ranked 25 companies in each of two categories: small and medium-sized. This year’s best-companies selections appeared in the July 2004 issue of HR Magazine.

But If You Build It, Will They Come?

Even if U.S. workers are given all the paid leave they want and the freedom to take it for whatever reasons they wish, the question remains whether, at a time when jobs are somewhat scarce and demands for increased productivity remain strong, workers will feel comfortable taking the time. Some employees may be concerned that in doing so they will be viewed by management as slacking off.

Such managerial disapproval is rare, however. The U.S. Chamber’s President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue, for example, “is a very strong proponent of people taking time off to recharge their batteries,” DiBari says. “One of the results of not being able to carry over too much time—in our case, one can carry over as much as 10 days—is that people will be forced to take time away from the office to regroup.”

Whatever pressures come to bear on workers to not take time off, Strukoff adds, are usually self-imposed. “If anything, what I hear all the time is workers declaring that ‘I can’t take a day off,’ but very rarely do I see a company that is really trying to dissuade people from taking time off. Most understand that people need to avoid burnout.”

Strukoff continues: “Most companies really do believe that it is healthy for people to get away from the office. Although in certain businesses, such as health care, retail, manufacturing or production [with multiple shifts to cover], it can be harder than in other industries.”

Mary E. Medland is a freelance business writer based in Baltimore.

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