May 20th, 2005

Flex Time Under Pressure in Tight Economy

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A study released in May hints at disillusionment with flex time, HR policy that allows workers to set their own hours and schedules within limits set by their employer. Variations include job sharing, telecommuting and compressed workweeks. The findings suggest employers are discovering disadvantages in an innovation that was hailed as an ergonomic breakthrough when it was introduced in the early 1990s.

The benefits attributed to flex time include higher productivity, lower costs in overtime, less tardiness and absenteeism, and better staff retention. And it has been viewed from the start as a valuable recruitment tool.

But flex time appears to be in decline, despite its undisputed benefits. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the percentage of employers offering or allowing flex time has fallen. Reported in “Unbendable Flexibility,” an article published in the Miami Herald in May, an HR society survey shows that the proportion of wage and salaried employees who had access to flex time soared from 29 percent to 43 percent between 1992 and 2002. A survey of nearly 500 companies in 2005, however, showed a decline. Only compressed workweeks (full-time hours over fewer workdays) gained popularity.

The consensus, as expressed in recent management and human resources publications, is that administering a flex time program is now more onerous, complicated and costly. Staff cutbacks are a sign of the times, and programs that require monitoring and more complicated timekeeping are an extra burden.

Interviewed for “The Parent Trap,” an article published in Smart Money magazine, sociology professor Jennifer Glass of the University of Iowa said it was only a few years ago that employers rolled out family-friendly polices to woo and retain scarce workers. Despite all the hoopla, she said, employees are finding that taking companies up on their offers, particularly now that the economy has tightened, can come with a price: management may question their commitment. According to University of Iowa research, professional women who make use of flex or part-time schedules and telecommuting receive lower raises than their peers, despite little difference in productivity. “Managers prefer workers who are in front of their face all the time and don’t ask for any kind of accommodation,” Professor Glass explained.

Consider the case of Virginia Daley. As reported in the Miami Herald article, she recently filed a suit against her former employer, Aetna Life & Casualty, alleging she was wrongfully terminated after returning from maternity leave because she asked to work at home one day a week. The judge in the case directed Aetna, well-known for its family-friendly programs, to survey its 2,000 employees who have alternative work arrangements, to uncover any inconsistencies in the company’s flex time policies. The case may prove to be an isolated example, but it will be noted as another strike against flexible policies by employers still weighing their options.

The court case is also a reminder of the importance of administering flex time equitably — another burden on stretched supervisors.

For employers and employees who remain believers in flex time, there are options for reducing the down side. Time and attendance software is available that automates the monitoring process. For employees? The Miami Herald article points out that there are two sets of rules: the official flex time offered in the employee handbook and the deal you can cut with your boss.

Sources: Miami Herald, Smart Money



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