As flexible work options become more commonplace - research from WorldatWork shows that flexibility programs including part-time schedules, flextime and telework are offered to some or all employees in more than 80% of companies, with more than two-thirds of organizations, and 68% offer all three (see chart) - it can be difficult to remember that not every employee has the option to work at home when her child is sick, or flex his hours to go to a mid-day doctor's appointment.

Hourly and nonexempt workers - already traditionally lower paid - tend to have additional constraints placed upon them without the aid of flexibility to balance their responsibilities.

Ad-hoc teleworking - a flexible option employees rely on to meet repair people and take care of sick children - is offered to 60% of nonexempt and hourly workers among companies that offer such a program, compared to 98% of exempt and salaried workers, WorldatWork finds.

"Hourly or lower-paid workers care just as much about a 'time famine' as their salaried colleagues. It's a real need for them and could be a real driver for their engagement and overall job satisfaction with their organization," explains Lisa Horn, co-director of the Society for Human Resource Management's workplace flexibility initiative.

These employees don't get as much access to flexible benefits as their salaried counterparts because employers perceive it to be more difficult, especially given statutory challenges in offering flexibility for nonexempt employees. Sometimes it's a lack of understanding and information on what would work, and others don't want to risk running afoul of the law.

Jae Ellard, founder of the Work Life Balance Consulting Group, adds that there's a lot of interest around workplace flexibility, but not a lot of action. When it comes down to investing in employees' welfare at any level, budgets are small. When employers need to choose between programs, those addressing employees' work-life and stress often don't make it into to the top of the list.

Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader at WorldatWork, suggests some employer bias might also be at work. "If you look at more white-collar nonexempt jobs, you can find some work that can be done outside of the office, if the employers are willing to look at that option. They seem to be reluctant more so than with exempts to immediately take on that type of flexible work option. There is a huge bias," adding that managers need to "[get] away from the idea that they need to have face time to ensure that employees are actually working."

To overcome these biases, Stanley says leadership needs "to manage by results and not by face time." This means training managers how to handle a flexible workplace, as the WorldatWork report shows few organizations train their managers and employees on flexibility.

 

Letting flexibility take flight

On the flip side though, are organizations like JetBlue, which ingrains flexibility into its culture. For instance, the entire customer support team, a nonexempt group, works from home. Still, JetBlue measures the success of the program with daily metrics to ensure customer satisfaction is still achieved. In addition, leaders also have monthly one-on-one meetings to review metrics, schedules and opportunities for enhanced success.

"As a company that specializes in travel, it's worthwhile noting that many of our crew members do not have fixed locations and travel throughout our system, lending itself to a natural flexibility in terms of where and when they are working," explains JetBlue spokesperson Allison Steinberg. "By our very nature, we have to be somewhat fluid. In general, JetBlue recognizes that life happens, and we work with our 13,500 crew members to accommodate accordingly."

Another company with similarly situated employees is 1-800 Contacts, Inc., 2010 winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Turnover in the company's call center crested at over 140% in 2000 when the company asked workers what would make them stay. Flexibility was the resounding answer.

Now almost half of all call center employees work from home. An attendance system rewards employees points for coming to work on time, and employees can apply the points toward days off. Turnover has since dropped to about 35% in 2009, below one-third of the national average for the call center industry.

Call centers aside, in general, many of the duties hourly workers fulfill aren't feasible from another location or at another time, making telework impossible. But there are other flexible work options. Flexible scheduling contains many options for employees, such as predictable scheduling a week or couple of days in advance or late starts for people with kids.

Employers also can offer flextime with core hours (see chart), where an employee works around a core set of hours, but can do any flexible combination around those core hours.

"There's a lot of opportunity for flexibility within the flexible work arrangement," Horn says, while cautioning, "What works for one set of your employees may not work for another."

Lisa Hufford, founder and CEO of Simplicity Consulting Inc., a marketing consulting company, understands this. Flexibility at her company is catered to each consultant and client relationship.

She employs over a large range of pay, with some entry-level employees receiving between $15 and $25 per hour. In addition, her company has people who work anywhere from 10 hours a week to full-time. Although the majority are salaried, some are hourly workers.

"We're unique in that our entire company and our entire approach is [based] all around this concept of flexibility because we believe that's what our clients need," says Hufford.

For example, one client used a job-share contract, retaining one consultant to design strategy and another, lower-paid colleague, to implement the strategy. They "shared the responsibilities, which met the client's needs," as well as the employees', she explains. Other consultants work remotely for their clients, Hufford adds, agreeing with Horn that flexibility means something different for each consultant. "Understanding the flexibility needs for the consultants we have, as well as what the clients' expectations are, is the most important [aspect] to achieving overall flexibility and happiness or success on everyone's part."

Simplicity Consulting bases its onboarding process on setting expectations for both client and the consultant, including a list of client questions related to flexibility, such as "How often is the consultant expected in the office?" and "What are the deadlines required?" In other words, all parties address at the outset "things that don't seem like a big deal, but could become a big deal," says Hufford.

Ellard supports this practice, explaining, "Communication is the golden rule of creating work-life balance."

"The key to [flexibility in the workplace] for managers is getting really clear on goals and deliverables that you need from your employee," Hufford says. "It's really on the manager or the leader to communicate the goals and deliverables."

In the end, Hufford says, "you empower your worker to feel like an adult" when they make their own decisions about how and when to work.

Hufford knows from first-hand experience, having left a position at Microsoft to become a consultant and set her own schedule.

"I've been figuring out my definition of flexibility and along the way, without realizing it, I've attracted other people. ... I feel like flexible working and engagement with corporations is the future," she says.

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