Work-Life Balance

Flexible Work Time Could be Salvation for Families–and an Advantage for Employers–So Why Do Companies, Employees Resist?

The typical two-income American family is stretched to the breaking point with responsibilities, and, for many, flexible work time would be helpful in finding a work-life balance, said Robert Bird, professor of Business Law.

“There are millions of people in our country under intense pressure,” said Bird, who is also the Northeast Utilities Chair in Business Ethics. “They are two-parent, working families taking care of children and/or elderly parents. Inflexible work schedules are making the stress even worse.”

Flextime practices can also benefit employers. Flextime has been associated with increased job satisfaction, reduced turnover, improved work ethics and increased productivity, he said. As employees gain improved work-life balance from flextime, they experience less stress and report fewer medical-related absences, which, in turn, reduces a firm’s medical costs.

Yet, employers are extremely reluctant to offer flexible work time, in large part because they believe it is a disruptive practice and that employees will take advantage of it, his research revealed. Likewise, many employees are hesitant to ask for flexibility in their work schedule, fearing repercussions in the workplace, including reduced chances for promotion.

Legislative initiatives on the horizon will mandate ‘flextime’ or similar practices. Therefore, it is in employers’ best interests to adopt thoughtful policies, with employee input, rather than be forced to do so by regulation, Bird said. He has proposed a solution that may appeal to both corporations and employees.

Bird defines flexible work as having the ability to modify one’s work hours or location. A flexible work schedule might also allow an employee to telecommute, to switch from full- to part-time, to job share, or take personal leave. A modern workplace, for instance, might require employees to work from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and they could complete the additional four hours either earlier or later.

Current employment law, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, protects workers in addressing crisis-care situations, but doesn’t address the needs of someone who needs an hour or two off to run a sick child to the doctor, he said.

“The lack of flextime has a tremendous impact on the employee, but also on society,” he said. “It can create instability in families, which correlates to crime, truancy, depression, divorce, and suicide, just to name a few. This is a societal issue that affects us all.”

Bird has written two research articles on flextime. The first, “Why Don’t More Employers Adopt Flexible Work Time?” will be published later this year in the West Virginia Law Review. The second article, “Precarious Work: The Need for Flextime Employment Rights and Proposals for Reform” will be published next year in the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law.

Flexible work time has been described as a necessity for the modern workplace. The need for flextime arose when mothers went to work in larger numbers, fathers increased family roles, and there was a rise in the number of single parents in the workforce. Flextime matured in the 1980s, when IBM allowed employees to take two-hours off at a time for personal needs. By the 1990s, flextime had become a popular workplace concept.

Bird’s research revealed that many employers retain a fixed and rigid schedule. By some estimates, fewer than 10 percent of employers offer formal flexible scheduling. Another study found that 67 percent of employers surveyed do not allow employees to vary their start- or ending- times. And 45 percent of U.S. workers said they have no ability to influence their work schedules at all. For less skilled workers, the opportunity for flexible work hours is even more bleak.

Why, then, are companies so rigid? A combination of tradition, investor belief that flexible work times aren’t valuable, and the decline of unions may all contribute. But perhaps the biggest factor is that managers think people shirk responsibility if not closely monitored, he said.

“I think there’s a strong belief that if you’re not in a place where you can be observed, you won’t do the work,” Bird said. In fact research indicates that flex work time yields at least the same amount—sometimes more—than a more rigid structure.

One example is First Tennessee Bank, which employed 8,000, and had many customer complaints about frequent turnover. Employees were leaving the bank because the organization lacked workplace flexibility, the rules were rigid and outdated, and absentee policies were harsh. Employees frequently lied about off-site client meetings so they could leave to attend their children’s after-school events. The bank eventually empowered employees to create a new policy and the results were dramatic, Bird said. With a flexible work policy in place, 96 percent of the employees described themselves as happy in their jobs, the bank saved $3 million in turnover costs, and both productivity and customer satisfaction improved.

The results aren’t surprising considering that a survey of more than 6,000 employees found a positive link between job flexibility and job satisfaction, Bird said. With reduced pressure, employees reported less burnout and increased sleep quality. Furthermore, it appears that women, employees with young children and older workers consider flexible worktime highly valuable.

The opportunity to work a flexible schedule seems to facilitate a sort of “gifting exchange,” in that workers are grateful for the employment perk and, in return, tend to be more productive, Bird noted.

Conversely it appears that in many rigid organizations, employees don’t push for flexibility because of fear of repercussions. Asking the wrong manager for some time off could result in a rebuke, Bird said. Even managers may feel the pressure to avoid using flextime. One managerial-level employee who requested acquired leave time was told by her superior, “You’re a manager and paid to manage, not to take holidays.”

When lower-level managers and employees approve or utilize flextime, they may do so only by keeping it a “secret” from a higher up. Direct supervisors may support flextime requests, whereas management at the regional level may regularly deny them. As a result many low- and middle-level managers who were supportive of flextime felt reluctant to grant it without clear support from senior management, Bird said. Senior management often declared a commitment to work-life balance but would do little to convert their rhetoric into practice.

Employees, then, would have little reason to rely on employer promises that flextime can be used openly and without retaliation, Bird noted. Even when management is not directly discouraging flextime, a widespread perception exists that requesting it is a poor career choice. One survey found that 25 percent of respondents believed their careers would be negatively affected if they took advantage of work-family policies.

That may soon change, however. Legislative initiatives are under consideration that may mandate flextime or similar practices, Bird noted. “In business law we often deal with ethics, human rights, and corporate responsibility,” he said. “How then do we model our society, and structure a modern, competitive workplace?”

He is recommending “right to request” legislation, which gives the opportunity for employees to request flextime without fear of retaliation. It would require employers to dutifully review the requests, but doesn’t mandate acceptance. It opens a dialogue between employee and employer, but also offers protection for the employee from being harassed.

“I think it’s a balance for employees who desperately need some flexibility, and yet it keeps the workplace running. It opens a dialogue between employee and employer. Companies are only compelled to consider, but not grant, each request. If granted, it could provide the balance so desperately needed by employees. It’s not a panacea for every industry, but in many situations flextime is a win-win for employer and employee,” Bird noted.

“As the economy improves, labor will be in greater demand,” he said. “When that happens I believe flextime will be used as a recruitment tool for high-demand employees.”

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