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Flexible work arrangements

Output, not hours, define performance

By Susan Wiese

Flexible Work Arrangements

April 7, 2009

Picture this: Overnight, without leaving his home, a University Internet Services professional keeps his eyes glued to servers, monitoring computers that are constantly sending and receiving thousands of e-mail messages.

7:30 a.m. At the start of her day, a University of Minnesota telephone operator asks, "University of Minnesota Information, how may I help you?" The switchboard comes alive and remains open for the next 10-and one-half hours.

9:35 p.m. The computer shuts down. Lights off. Door closed. An evening class instructor in the College of Continuing Education heads home. This faculty member won't return to campus for 24 hours.

Not one of the University employees represented has a traditional eight-to-five job. From being on duty throughout the night, to an early morning start, University employees are on and off the clock with variable hours and staggered schedules that allow employees to balance career, childcare, eldercare, household obligations, and time for one's self.

Working with supervisors and managers, U faculty and staff are effectively using what is called a flexible work arrangement to achieve balance between work and personal responsibilities. Flexible work arrangements enable an employee to alternate where she puts in time, what hours she is on duty, and the number of hours that make up her workday. You can explore different types of flexible work arrangements and specific U policies in detail at Flexible Work Arrangements.

These arrangements have been available to University employees since the early '90s, when the Board of Regents adopted an employee work-life policy (PDF) to "foster a productive, healthy, and safe workplace that helps employees effectively integrate and manage their work and personal life responsibilities."

Case for flexible work arrangements
On campus and off, the world of work is changing. We are moving away from an industrial approach toward an informational style of management in which employees are highly computer literate and the culture of the workplace is less formal. Employees are expected to quickly adapt to new circumstances. There is greater respect for personal time and an overall commitment to use technology to improve performance.

"How we supervise our employees is evolving toward a managerial approach that is more results-oriented," says the Human Resources vice president Carol Carrier. "We are focusing more on what an employee and his or her team accomplishes with their time, not simply the time that is worked." Increasingly, technology is allowing employees to work from anywhere at anytime, says Carrier. "The University should seize this opportunity to leverage these options to the advantage of the institution and the employee," she says.

In the current economic downturn, employees have filled the "Economy and the U" suggestion box with cost-saving ideas. The use of flexible work arrangements emerged as one the most-often recommended strategies for the University to accomplish more while spending less. Proponents argue such arrangements can cut costs in the near-term while positioning the U for long-term success.

In the College of Biological Sciences, interest in flexible work arrangements peaked when gas prices hit $4 a gallon last summer. "People were trying to find smarter and less expensive ways to work," says CBS Human Resource Manager Nicole Matteson. With the economy now affecting everyone at the U in different ways, interest in these arrangements are on the rise U-wide.

Flexible work arrangements work
What just five years ago was largely theory, increasingly is becoming workplace practice. Studies show the benefits of flexible work arrangements can include:

  • Improved worker productivity and efficiency
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Better employee morale
  • Improved employee engagement
  • Less absenteeism
  • Less turnover which results in less money spent on hiring, training new employees
  • Increased balance between work and family/personal life
  • Costs savings related to facilities management: fewer buildings, lower utility bills, fewer employee parking spaces
  • Fuel savings, reduced emissions, and a smaller carbon footprint for commuters

"What's noteworthy about flexible work arrangements," says Organizational Effectiveness Consultant, Dee Ann Bonebright, "is that productivity tends to go up because the employees can structure their work the way they work most effectively."

"Employees really do want flexibility in their work schedules," says Bonebright, because they see it as a solution to the conflict they are experiencing between their work and their personal or family life.

Nevertheless, some employees fear a potential downside to any flexible work arrangement. According to Bonebright, "Some managers tend to manage according to face time. If you are not on site, being regularly seen by your supervisor, you are not working. You may be perceived as less dedicated, less deserving of a promotion, and less committed to the organization."

U Research
A University research initiative, funded by the National Institutes of Health under the direction of professors Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen examined one local company's distinctive commitment to flexibility. The researchers studied a novel initiative at Best Buy Co. called ROWE, for "results-only work environment." The objective of ROWE is to judge employee performance on their output instead of hours. ROWE challenges the notion that physical presence equates with productivity. For more information on that, view the Flexible Work and Well-Being Study.

The ROWE experiment at Best Buy builds upon existing theory that suggests it is important for employees to have a sense of control over the time and timing of their work.

In Rethinking the Clockwork of Work, Kelly writes, "...The ROWE initiative is unusual because it is explicitly directed towards increased control, it involves teams, rather than individuals, and it is a culture change project that involves questioning old assumptions and expectations in order to create a new work environment."

The U sociologists say insights from their research can be useful for employers and employees seeking to promote engagement, effectiveness, and well-being, on and off the job.

At Best Buy currently 8 out of 10 corporate staffers are working the ROWE way. Internal studies of the new work environment in which employees are free to work where they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done show the ROWE project has proven itself.

A Best Buy spokeswoman reports productivity is up an average of 42 percent in departments that switched to ROWE. Employee engagement according to surveys conducted by the company is way up, too.

Foundation for success of flexible work arrangements
Bonebright insists that before implementing a flexible work arrangement an employee must have a detailed job description outlining his or her duties and responsibilities. There must also be a way to measure the expectations the supervisor has of his or her staff member. Key to the success of every flexible work arrangement, Bonebright says, is having answers to the following questions:

  1. Will the work that needs to be done be appropriate and suitable for a flexible work arrangement?
  2. Is the employee who is requesting the arrangement a good fit for this type of "clockless" assignment?
  3. Is there an agreement that addresses the following:
    * What type, quantity, and quality of work will be expected?
    * How will the above criteria be measured?
    * How will the supervisor and the employee communicate back and forth about what is being accomplished?

Moving increasingly toward this new way to work, in which the employee controls when, where, and how the responsibilities of the job are accomplished, can be initially daunting. The arrangements require open communication, ground rules, coaching (perhaps for both the manager and the employee), and, lastly, careful evaluation and measurement to determine if the arrangement is indeed working.

Are supervisors willing to turn over managerial responsibilities to a staff member? Are employees ready to truly be their own bosses? Now may be the time to try and discover the challenges and rewards of flexible work arrangements.

Reexamining the way we work
Clearly University employees value a flexible work environment. To bring consistency to the policy and practice U-wide, faculty and staff are encouraged to visit the OHR Web site.

Employees can find more information at OHR flex.
Supervisors should familiarize themselves with the Manager's Toolkit.
An article in a 2006 issue of Brief has additional information on flexible working arrangements.