Articles Posted in Alternative Work Schedules

Earlier this month, the President proclaimed October 2012 National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). The observance is intended to raise awareness about disability employment issues and to celebrate the contributions of our country’s workers with disabilities. This year’s theme is “A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?”

In conjunction with NDEAM, he U.S. Department of Labor has launched an online Workplace Flexibility Toolkit to “provide employees, job seekers, employers, policymakers and researchers with information, resources and a unique approach to workplace flexibility.”

According to the U.S. DOL, the toolkit “points visitors to case studies, fact and tip sheets, issue briefs, reports, articles, websites with additional information, other related toolkits and a list of frequently asked questions. It is searchable by type of resource, target audience and types of workplace flexibility, including place, time and task.”

Utah was the first (and only) state in the U.S. to move to a mandatory four-day workweek.  Under the system, which was implemented by former Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2008, almost all state employees were converted to a schedule of four, 10-hour days per week.  As readers of this blog may recall, I have not been the biggest proponent of the four-day workweek.  See The Cons of a 4-Day Workweek.  

But not everyone agreed.  In fact, for a while, the compressed-week schedule was very, very popular and local governments around the country began to initiate pilot groups to test it.  These efforts were supported by announcements that the Utah program was generating lots of savings for the State and lauded as an official “success.” 

Well, as it turns out, Utah may have been wearing rose-colored glasses when it made the “success” determination, according to a recent audit. The State admitted that it had not seen the reduced energy costs that it had hoped for (realizing only about $500,000 in savings in the first year, as compared to the expected $3 million).  But the audit says it goes a bit deeper, finding that the State overestimated how much money it saved in saved overtime and other costs.  In fairness to the Utah program, though, employee surveys do indicate that employees prefer the four-day workweek, so there must be some supporters. 

Workplace flexibility has been a hot topic, a highlight of which was President Obama’s White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, televised earlier this week. The forum was designed as an opportunity for labor leaders, CEOs, small business owners, and policy experts to share their ideas and strategies for making the workplace more flexible for workers and their families. During the conference, the President compared flexible work schedules to the early stages of email: some companies have it, some don’t, but eventually, all companies will. Get ready employers – if you haven’t gotten aboard yet, the train may run you over!

Juggle work and home workplace flexibility

With healthcare out of the way, the administration is freed up to focus on other priorities. During the campaign, then-candidate Obama included work-life issues as an important part of his agenda, committing to expand FMLA, to prevent caregiver discrimination, and to offer incentives to employers to expand flexible work arrangements.  The forum indicates  that work-life issues remain a focus of this administration. Although the Obamas now have a personal chef, chauffeurs, and other assistance to make their “balance” a little easier, I am sure that Michelle’s experience managing a demanding career and raising her two girls has helped to ensure this issue remains on the President’s radar screen.

The discussion has taken different varied focuses over the years, but the bottom line is this: for many reasons, in order to retain employees in the modern workforce, employers have to reinvent the old model of an ideal worker. Flexible work schedules are over and over again focused on as the reasonable way to accommodate the needs of both employer and employee. The impetus for employers to engage in this discussion has  evolved a bit over the years.

EEOC issued Employer Best Practices for Workers With Caregiving Responsibilities, a technical-assistance guide, last week.  Caregiver or Family-Responsibilities Discrimination, according to the EEOC, occurs when an employer makes an adverse employment decision based on the employee’s care-giving responsibilities.  Because this type of discrimination is a derivative of gender discrimination, the basic premises begins with parents of young children.  But it extends in the opposite direction, as well, to employers whose own parents are the ones in need of caregiving.  This second category is the less commonly recognized of the two forms of discrimination.  But there is a third type, as well.  A  dual-income household where both caregivers are working and care not only for children, but also for aging parents, is known as a “sandwiched” home.  The sandwiched generation are those who are at a very fragile point, having responsibility for multiple generations.Big kid and little kid with PDAs

As many as 9-13% of American households can be characterized as a sandwiched household.  The typical couple includes a 44-year-old man and a 42 year-old-woman, who have been married for just less than 20 years. Both spouses work full time.  There are two children in the home and two aging parents who require assistance in performing daily tasks of living, such as transportation, shopping, making care-related decisions, housekeeping, and managing money.  

Until the economy enjoys a significant improvement, it is easy to imagine that the number of sandwiched households will continue to grow.  Aging parents who, in good financial times, may have been able to afford the expense of assisted living, may see a more reasonable option as living with an adult child.  Of course, as we continue to outlive previous generations, the number of aging parents will continue to grow. 

Flexible work schedules come in every shape and size. Job sharing is just one type of work arrangement that offers employees flexibility and, in turn, the opportunity for an approved work-life balance. But what exactly is job sharing?  It’s just what sounds like–employees share job duties as a way to reduce each person’s job duties. Essentially, job sharing is a type of part-time work. It involves two or more workers who are responsible for the duties and tasks of one full-time position.

Some job shares are set up so that each employee handles specific duties.  Other job shares have a less formal division of duties. In either set up, the employees coordinate their schedules so that the regular “shift” is always covered.  When one job sharer is not working, the other is.  There is usually some overlap in scheduling to enable the sharers to communicate.  The division of time can be split evenly but any assignment can be successful.

The most basic requirement for potential job sharers is a well-honed sense of teamwork.  An employee who tends to be controlling of his or her duties may have difficulty in letting go of that control to another employee.  Communication skills also are critical.  The job sharers must be able not only to work well together, but also to be able to communicate when things are going well and when things are going not so well. 

Telecommuting has been on the rise for several years. Worsening economic conditions have increased the telecommuting trend more than ever, as employers begin to take notice of its potential cost savings and reduced overhead.   Many employees, though, worry that they lack the discipline required to telecommute effectively.  Working from home does require discipline. It requires the employee to be aware of potential distractions that are not issues in the traditional workplace.  people father and son at dad's workplace

But there are strategies to make working from home work for you.  If your employer has asked you to consider telecommuting or if you recently started working from home, here are a few tips to help you succeed at telecommuting:

1.  Stick to a schedule

Delaware’s largest industrial employer is asking its salaried workers to take at least two weeks’ unpaid leave.  75 of the company’s senior leaders announced that they will take three weeks off without pay in response to the current market conditions.  There are a number of reasons to consider initiating this type of voluntary program instead of involuntary layoffs.  According to the article reported by the Wilmington News Journal:Dupont

Employers appear to be favoring voluntary programs, according to a February survey by Watson Wyatt consulting firm. Eleven percent of the 245 U.S.-based companies surveyed have instituted mandatory furloughs, while another 6 percent expect to launch a program in the next 12 months.  By comparison, 10 percent already have had voluntary furloughs and another 9 percent are expected to ask for voluntary furloughs within the next 12 months, the survey said.

A DuPont representative cited the current preference for flexible work schedules as one reason for its decision to initiate the voluntary program.  Another reason was that it made compliance with foreign laws easier than if an involuntary layoff program had been utilized. 

Utah’s four-day work week has been in place for nearly a year and the numbers are in. According to state officials, the energy savings have not materialized but there have been increases in employee productivity and reported worker satisfaction. State planners report the following benefits to the four-day work week:

  • Less overtime hours worked
  • Less leave taken
  • 70% satisfaction

NPR ran an article on the reduced-workweek program. There was no mention in the article about how the “increased productivity” was measured.  But it did include the opinion of one state employee who is not in the 70% of “happy workers.” 

Nicki Lockheart is quoted in the article as saying about the alternative work schedule, “I hate it.”  “A 10-hour day for me is like eternity,” she says.

Flexible schedules is a topic of particular interest to me, in some part, because I am the grateful beneficiary of one.   I commend employers, including my own, who have made the enlightened and informed decision to offer this benefit.  It’s a decision that I firmly believe will pay dividends in employee loyalty and ultimately save the employer money on hiring, retraining, etc.calendar and clock

Raising happy, healthy, adjusted children is the responsibility of our entire population, and the burden of doing so should not rest on the mother’s shoulders alone. However, the United States, unlike other industrialized nations, has little legislation to promote this ideal. Absent the FMLA, permitting new parents 12 weeks (unpaid) to bond with their children, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against women on the basis of their pregnancy, accommodations or benefits to assist new mothers in balancing their work and families are left largely to the employer’s discretion.

WorkLife Law has advocated aggressively and effectively on behalf of working mothers, suggesting litigation through existing statutes where possible to remedy inequities with respect to mothers in the workplace. In part due to their efforts, the EEOC issued its guidance on Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities , which helped to focus employers and EEOC investigators on subtle biases about the commitment of working mothers to their job responsibilities, that may result in actionable discrimination cases.

A recent “Employer Alert” from WorkLife Law, however, has taken it too far, suggesting the following:

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The four-day work week is very popular among public employers these days.  Employers who have implemented a compressed work week program successfully say they’ve enjoyed benefits such as saved energy costs, decreased absenteeism, and improved employee morale resulting from the change. 

I don’t believe that a four-day work week is the solution of all solutions, as some have claimed.  But I do believe that there are certain organizations that, because of their structure and purpose, can be good models for the program.  The ideal candidates, though, are almost always government employers.  A mandatory four-day work week, generally, is not realistic in the private sector. image

But does that general proposition lose its vigor in a bad economy?  Can the four-day work week be implemented in the private sector more effectively because of the downturn?  It turns out that flexible schedules can have important benefits in an economic downtime, just as they can in times of fiscal health.  The trick, though, is to get employers to be aware of the opportunities.  

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