Barbara Silver, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Professor
Labor Relations and Human Resources
Part 3. Workplace Flexibility Close-Up: How One URI Office is Making it Work
Implementing new policies and practices to help employees better balance competing life, family, and work responsibilities can be complicated in an institution comprised of nine labor unions with nine separate collective bargaining agreements. But the flexibility model developed in the URI Controller’s Office is testament to the impact that creative determination can have, and offers an excellent example of how one URI office took the initiative to formally offer creative flexibility solutions to its approximately 62 employees across 5 departments and 3 labor unions.Because of the nature of the work, the Controller’s Office is one place where flex hours and compressed work weeks are feasible options. At least as long as nine years ago, the office responded to staff requests, and made flexible starting times informally available. More recently, in 2007, Sharon Bell, Controller, and Trish Casey, Associate Controller, with input from Human Resources, implemented a comprehensive Voluntary Flexible Schedule program. This thoughtfully-developed program offers basic flex options, while emphasizing the need to ensure business continues to be conducted efficiently. As stated in the program description, it “offer[s] the staff the option to work a flexible schedule based on [the] department’s needs as well as ensuring supervision, hours of operation, customer service, overall department responsibilities and deadlines, etc., are covered.”
The program offers two flex options, available for 6-month terms, and approval for either is granted depending on seniority, the department’s work load and other factors. These options are offered to staff and managers alike. One option, a “flexible ‘day-off’ schedule,” offers essentially a compressed work week, in which an employee may take one day off during a 2-week pay period, while still working a 35-hour work week. The second option is a “non-standard hours schedule,” in which an employee may design a 7-hour schedule between the hours of 7:30 to 5:00, rather than the standard 8:30 to 4:30. Once the schedule is approved, it cannot be changed for 6 months, unless the employee wishes to revert back to her or his normal schedule. Those who choose a flex option must sign an agreement that includes parameters and restrictions for use, as well as consequences if abuse of the new schedule occurs. “This is a binding agreement between the supervisor and the employee. It is black and white,” says Bell. Departments within the Controller’s Office must develop plans that address issues relating to overall department schedules and optimal functioning. After 6 months and a positive assessment, employees may renew or modify their contract, or return to their regular work schedule.
Both Bell and Casey understand that today employees, both women and men, are increasingly facing multiple, competing, and sometimes simultaneous challenges in meeting family and personal demands while adhering to a strict work schedule. “We try to listen to everybody’s needs,” says Casey. “We emphasize that this is not about women or for special needs – it is for everybody across the board.” And, in addition to tuning in to the work-life needs of their employees, they believe they have improved their office’s functioning. “This is not meant to be an interference with how we service our community,” emphasized Casey. “We feel we are serving our community better with a broader number of hours we work. We are here as early as 7:30 to sometimes as late as 5:00 pm. And we do this without the additional expense of Overtime.”
Why provide these options? “People wanted them. They heard about it being done other places, and asked for it. They use it to meet child care demands, go to doctor’s appointments, or to go to school themselves. For those who work the ‘day-off’ schedule, it also helps with gas prices,” says Casey. And the benefits the two managers talk about mirror national findings that flexibility reaps increases in job satisfaction, productivity, morale, and more. “People are able to be productive both at work and at home, and some employees say they are more productive during their flex weeks than their non-flex weeks,” she added. Bell agreed, “Things are going very well. There is no diminishment in productivity or workload. Employees opting for the flexible ‘day-off’ schedule get on a roll, they put in the extra time during a day, and don’t have to stop what they are doing. They know they have to get what they need to get done and have things in order for the day they are going to be out.”
At first, Bell and Casey shared concerns echoed by others hesitant to implement flexibility options. “We were worried about abuse. In the past, when flexibility was more informal, some people did take advantage of it. But this newer plan is more structured - we looked at everything that could go wrong – holidays, sick days, coming in late, etc,” said Bell. The administrators are firm about the rules. For example, the office has a 7-minute rule – if an employee is less than 7 minutes late, they make those few minutes at the end of the day. If it happens periodically, they work with the employee to perhaps shift their hours by 15 minutes. But for the flex people, there is no 7-minute rule, and those who come in late must discharge time. “If they want it, they have to be responsible,” says Bell. “People have been very appreciative. From a manager’s perspective, it is not as disruptive as one might think.”
Another oft-cited barrier to implementing flex options is the fear by supervisors that they will be inundated with requests and that managing schedules and keeping track will become too time-consuming and burdensome. Not so, say both Bell and Casey. “It takes a little thought in the beginning, but it is not hard to manage, once you get it down. “ And not as many people opted for a flexible schedule as they expected. In the beginning, there were perhaps as many as half the staff on formal flex schedules, but that has dwindled to about a third. “People want it until they try it, then they find out it may not be so great. They find out that it is not really a “day off” – they still have to put in their 35 hours!” In one case, an employee opted out of a plan because it actually added stress at home. For another, a mother determined that a day off meant an older child spent some time unsupervised, and so she switched to a non-standard hours schedule that better matched her child’s school schedule.
Yet another perceived barrier, placing undue burdens on other employees and causing employee resentment, was touched on by Casey. She noted that this plan sometimes can place burdens back on managers who are covering for those off on flex days. “One of my managers takes every other Friday off as her flex day, and the burden of her not being here falls on me, just as if I took a day off, my duties would fall to Sharon [Bell].” However she noted that they did consider this when they implemented the model. The antidote to these shifts in duties is careful planning, and promoting a “culture of coverage,” or a work environment where employees support one another, recognizing that everyone will have a time when they need co-worker support. It appears the URI Controller’s Office offers a good example of this. Another tactic is to cross-train employees, so that each employee can assume other duties if need be. Cross-training can be a powerful flexibility tool in creating a nimble and efficient workplace, as it can not only service the organization’s needs, but can provide professional development and skill broadening for employees. The Controller’s Office has a “buddy system” in which a designated back-up, or buddy, is available to fill in when needed if their buddy is out.
Helene Bucka, Travel Clerk, is a member of the ACT union. She says that about 75% of the clerical staff, including managers, are on some type of flex schedule. Helene’s flex schedule enables her to take every other Friday off, except during pay periods in which a holiday falls. So for non-holiday pay periods, Helene works one regular 5-day, 35-hour week, and a flex week, during which she works 9-hour days Monday through Wednesday, an 8-hour day on Thursday. She notes that there really are no challenges, except perhaps that some 9-hour days, especially Mondays, seem long. However, she is quick to note that the benefits definitely outweigh any challenges. She appreciates the opportunity to have some quiet time when she comes in early. “I get more work done in the morning when it is quiet.” Why did she opt for a flex schedule? “It is nice to have a 3-day weekend. I can get mundane chores and errands done on Friday, and then I actually have the weekend to do some things I enjoy.” Helene has a counterpart in the travel office, who has also opted for a flex schedule, though with Mondays off, to enable someone to be in the office every day.
Helene says she is grateful to have this opportunity, and wishes she could do it even more. “I can’t see how it is difficult to manage at all. We all sign contracts, the payroll department and our supervisors know what our schedules are. It is good for morale – it is nice to feel that people are thinking of you.” When asked if she thought there might be a negative impact on productivity, she replied, “Not at all. I make a point to have everything ready before I take my day off.” She also noted that there was no resentment among co-workers. “We all have the same opportunity. It is a choice people make.”
In the Accounts Payable Department, says Manager Judy Moore, 7 of the 16 employees, including herself, are on a flex schedule. Her schedule is similar to Helene’s, which affords her 12 extra days “off” a year. Judy is also very enthusiastic about the program, and agrees that she and her employees are more productive. “It is a big benefit to employees, and people want to get the work done. A 7-hour day now feels like a short day to me.” From a management perspective, Judy says there are few challenges as long as the proper controls are in place, such as ensuring people’s schedules don’t conflict, and changing phone messages that direct customers to the appropriate person. She agrees with Bell that there has been no abuse. “We get things in writing, and everything is understood.”
One of the employees on a flex schedule that Judy supervises is Kathy LaCroix. “I love it. I get a lot more work done, and am definitely more productive in those 2 extra hours on the long days. I get to take long weekends, have an extra day to get chores done, schedule appointments, and can travel more easily to visit my mother in Long Island. When you are a working mom, time is precious and you never have enough of it.” Kathy’s comments reflect a working environment that is supportive and that promotes a culture of coverage and co-worker support. She agrees there is no resentment among her co-workers, as everybody has access to it, and everyone knows to cover for one another on their days off. “I am grateful to my supervisors, and we all feel the same way in this department. It would be nice if everyone could have this opportunity. It makes life easier, and my family has adjusted to it. It might not work out for everyone, perhaps those with young children, but it has been great for me.”