Time On Their Side

You need good employees. They need increased flexibility. Here's how the twain shall meet.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the July 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Is the 9-to-5 workday, once the centerpiece of U.S. business, taking its last breath? A stunning 55 percent of companies recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management say they offer flexible work scheduling, or flextime, to their workers.

The trend is clear. In May 1991, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 15.1 percent of the nation's workers had a flextime option; by May 1997, that figure had risen to 27.1 percent. Not surprisingly, workers are cheering this increasing implementation of flextime. "Employees are clearly saying they want more flexibility in how they manage their work hours," says Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at Boston University's School of Management.

Listen up, because offering flextime may allow you to compete head-to-head with the biggest companies for top workers. "Offer flextime, and it will definitely help your recruiting efforts," says Anne Chamberlain, a human resources consultant with Buck Consultants Inc., an employment benefits and consulting firm in New York City. Research demonstrates that prospective employees attach a great deal of weight to how much schedule flexibility a company offers, Chamberlain says. And in an economy where the best workers have no shortage of tempting job offers, not providing flextime may just steer terrific job candidates elsewhere.

Giving employees a choice isn't just a great recruiting tool; it'll also keep employees loyal longer. "Flextime is the number-one driver of employee retention," contends Kathie Lingle, National Director of Work/Life at KPMG LLP. Money, she adds, isn't necessarily the key to holding good employees: "Time now is as scarce as money," says Lingle, "and employees are much more likely to stay with an employer who gives them a say in setting their work schedule."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjm@mcgarvey.net

Flexing Your Schedules

Exactly what is flextime? Under flexible work scheduling, employees typically put in a normal workweek--approximately 40 hours--but they choose their own starting and quitting times. So one employee might start the day at 6 a.m. and go home at 3 p.m., while another starts late in the morning and calls it a day in the early evening. "Some flextime schedules even allow workers to borrow hours and carry them from one workday to the next or, in some extremely flexible programs, from one week to another," says Ron Riggio, a professor at Claremont McKenna College's Kravis Leadership Institute in Claremont, California.

Give workers that freedom, and the big advantage to them is a sense of freedom and control, says Riggio. That's a huge plus because nowadays, most employees must do complicated juggling to handle the work, family and personal demands they face daily.

Flextime is one tool that lets employees find solutions to managing their busy schedules. "Give employees more control over their time, and they feel they can find ways to control the rest of their lives," says Lingle. And that creates a happier, more productive employee.

Indeed, not only does flextime make for happier workers, says Riggio, "It usually puts an end to absenteeism and tardiness on the part of employees."

Clocking Challenges

Good as this sounds, there is a dark side to flextime. "It can make a manager's job much more difficult," says Foulkes. How? Most bosses are still accustomed to "face time"--they're happiest when they can see employees doing their jobs. What's more, when the boss works the same hours as employees, he or she is always on hand to answer questions, deal with emergencies and ensure that the work gets done. When workers put in staggered hours, always being on the job becomes a near impossibility for the boss. "For flextime to succeed, management has to trust employees and be noncontrolling," says Foulkes.

"The changes involved in instituting flextime can be very threatening to management," adds Lingle. Are you up to that challenge? Prior to implementing flextime, know there are issues you need to consider before you gather the staff together and announce your new policy.

You may find when looking into your particular office situation that it would be exceedingly difficult to institute a flextime program. "Flextime won't work in all companies or for all positions," says Riggio. One example would be for employees who work on assembly lines, where all hands have to be on board for the line to move forward. More broadly, minimum staffing is required for some positions in all companies--most businesses need customer service and security personnel on hand at specific times, for instance.

Beyond that, another key to making flextime work is to set up schedules so all workers are on hand simultaneously for at least a slice of the day--frequently from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Without that overlap, trying to schedule in-house meetings can be frustrating.

In the process of setting up the system, you must also decide how much flexibility workers will have to change their schedules: Can they come in at 8 a.m. on Monday and Friday, 6 a.m. on Wednesdays, and 7 a.m. the other days? In some flextime approaches, that variation is permitted. In others, workers have to pick one time frame and stick to it every day. Neither way is better: "Flextime is itself flexible," says Lingle. It's your call which style of flextime you want in your business.

But there are still more concerns to contemplate, and a big one is that in announcing a shift to flextime, you've got to clearly communicate to employees that all core business functions must always be covered, says Chamberlain. This can be a trouble spot in smaller companies, she says. If everybody wants to start at 6 a.m., probably some won't get their way, and you have to prepare workers for that possibility. You can explain that, to the extent possible, individual workers' preferences will be accommodated, but the work still has to get done and customers must still be satisfied.

Other issues that are apt to come up when creating a flextime plan include:

*Complaints that other workers are abusing the system. "You often hear this," says Foulkes, who says that sometimes workers will claim to arrive much earlier than they actually do. Over time, however, employees are apt to police themselves, with shirkers getting a clear message from co-workers that they've got to shape up.

*Employee skepticism about management's sincerity. "You need to encourage workers to use their flextime options," says Lingle. Fail to offer encouragement, and you may find everybody still working the same hours??? but that doesn't necessarily mean they're happy about it. "Employees need reassurance that this option is there to be used," Lingle adds.

*Demands for still more flexible scheduling. "In most companies, instituting flextime opens the door to requests to telecommute, for instance," says Lingle. If that's not a good idea for your business--and flextime suits vastly more businesses and jobs than telecommuting does--say so upfront and explain why. Employees are likely to accept rational reasons without grumbles.

Do the results warrant all this bother to institute flextime? The fast spread of flexible scheduling policies through U.S. businesses says it does. And it may well be inevitable that sooner rather than later, virtually all companies will offer some form of it. "Flextime just fits our times," says Foulkes.

By increasing worker satisfaction and costing a business little, if any, out-of-pocket expenses, it's definitely an option worth taking a hard look at. Says Lingle, "If you want to keep your best employees, you'd better give strong consideration to offering flextime. It's become just that popular today."

Contact Source

Buck Consultants Inc.,http://www.buckconsultants.com

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