Flexible work programs are work arrangements wherein employees are given greater scheduling freedom in how they fulfill the obligations of their positions. The most commonplace of these programs is flextime, which gives workers far greater leeway in terms of the time when they begin and end work, provided they put in the total number of hours required by the employer.  Other common flexible working arrangements involve telecommuting, job sharing, and compressed work weeks. 

Supporters of flexible work programs hail them as important recognition of the difficulties that many employees have in balancing their family obligations and their work duties, as they note that such programs can make a company more attractive to prospective employees. Critics contend, however, that while flexible employment initiatives do attempt to redress some long-time inequities in the work life-family balance, ill-considered plans can have deleterious impact on a company.

Primary Flexible Work Programs

Flexible work arrangements can take a number of forms, from basic flexible programs to innovative child-eldercare programs.

  • Flextime – This is a system wherein employees choose their starting and quitting times from a range of available hours. These periods are usually either end of a “core” time during which most company business takes place.  Formerly regarded as a rare, cutting-edge workplace arrangement, flextime is now commonly practiced in a wide variety of industries.
  • Compressed Work-Week – Under this arrangement, the standard work-week is compressed into fewer than five days. The most common incarnation of the compressed work-week is one of four 10-hour days. Other options include three 12-hour days or arrangements in which employees work 9- or 10-hour days over two weeks and are compensated with an extra day or two of time off during that time.
  • Flexplace – This term encompasses various arrangements in which an employee works from home or some other non-office location. Telecommuting is the most commonly practiced example of this type of flexible employment.
  • Job Sharing – Under these arrangements, two people voluntarily share the duties and responsibilities of one full-time position, with both salary and benefits of that position prorated between the two individuals.
  •  Work-Sharing – These programs are increasingly used by companies that wish to avoid layoffs. It allows businesses to temporarily reduce hours and salary for a portion of their workforce. 
  • Expanded Leave – This option gives employees greater flexibility in terms of requesting extended periods of time away from work without losing their rights as employees. Expanded leave, which can be granted on either a paid or unpaid basis, is used for a variety of reasons, including sabbaticals, education, community service, family problems, and Medicare.
  • Phased Retirement – Under these arrangements, the employee and employer agree to a schedule wherein the employee’s full-time work commitments are gradually reduced over a period of months or years.
  •  Partial Retirement – These programs allow older employees to continue working on a part-time basis, with no established end of date.
  • Work and family programs – These programs are still relatively rare, although some larger companies have reported good results with pilot initiatives in this area. These programs are one in which employers provide some degree of assistance to their employees in the realms of childcare and eldercare. The best known of these programs are in-house facilities providing care for the children of employees, but even basic flex time programs can ease childcare logistics for employees. 

Employers see that the availability, affordability, and accessibility of good childcare can have a bottom-line impact.  Lack of quality childcare leads to employees’ absenteeism, tardiness, distraction, and stress-related health problems. Conversely, employees’ reliability, good morale, and motivation are positive results that derive from safe, stable, developmentally sound child care arrangements.


Advantages of Flexible Work Programs

Defenders of flexible work initiatives  point to the competitive advantages that  that such programs bring  to companies that move  in that direction. Perhaps, the single most cited reason for introducing flexible work environments is employee retention. Indeed, many businesses contend that the trend toward flextime and other programs has made it necessary for them to introduce their own programs or risk losing valued employees

Another business argument for flexible work arrangements is that they allow companies to match the peaks and valleys of activity.  More organizations have shifted their focus to ho potential changes in schedule will affect the product. Reduced absenteeism though not overlooked, is also a legitimate business rationale; flexible options not only strengthen commitment, but also give employees more time to handle the very situations that sometimes leads to absenteeism.

Proponents also note that, in many respects, flexible work programs provide a way for businesses to increase employee loyalty without resorting to making fundamental changes in their operations. Indeed, the most popular flexible work options involve the least change.  Flex time and compressed work weeks, for example, call for the same number of hours, at the same workplace, as in traditional work arrangements.  

In addition, some supporters of flexible work arrangements argue that such programs can actually have a positive impact on the productivity of employees. They contend that the employees who are better able to attend to family needs through flex time are more likely to be contented and productive, while good employees who telecommute may get even more work done if they are freed up from office interruptions.

Businesses can also us flexible programs to address institutional problems. For instance, a small or mid-sized business that is crammed into a small facility or office may want to explore telecommuting programs in order to relieve the situation without resorting to an expensive relocation or expansion. Finally, proponents say the flexible work programs can be beneficial to companies by enhancing their public image and expanding their number of hours during which customers can be served.


Disadvantages of Flexible Work Programs

Flexible work programs have many apparent advantages, but critics point out those ill-conceived programs can have a negative impact on businesses, and they add that even good programs often present challenges that a business has to address.

First of all, business owners and managers need to recognize that flexible work arrangements are not always appropriate for all people, jobs, or industries. Telecommuting and other “flexplace” arrangements, for example, can be disastrous (or at the very least, a productivity drain) if used by employees who are unwilling or unable to put in a full day of work amid the non-work temptations (television, pleasure reading, housecleaning, etc.) of the home setting. 

Other companies, meanwhile, find the employee “flex” in and out of the business at such different hours  that overhead costs increase, customer service suffers (i.e. no one comes in  until 9.30 a.m., a state of affairs  that forces customers  and vendors  to cool their heels until then),  and manufacturing output suffers.  This latter factor makes flex time a difficult fit for many manufacturing facilities. Many of the factory operations depend on each other being there, especially when you talk about the concept of work-cell team manufacturing; they really all have to be there at the same time.

Critics also contend that flex programs often leave managers in exceedingly difficult situations. Far too often, flex is embraced for its “family-friendly” aspects long before the corporate support needed to manage it root. In these companies, flex policies are outlined in the employee manual but implementation is left  up to individual managers.  Then, when managers try to implement these programs, they discover that to be fair, flex requires them to treat different employees differently.

Finally, many observers argue that businesses launch flexible work plans without adequate preparation. According to a human resource development consultant, “ I know that flex is a basic element of  family-friendly  and that family-friendly is a requisite for competitive  companies; but it takes  more than a statement  in the policy manual  to institutionalize flex. It takes new methodologies to measure job success and investment in technologies to keep employees in constant communication.” 


Continued Change in Flexible Work Programs

In today’s business world, flexible employment staples such as flextime and telecommuting continue to grow, in large measures because businesses that introduce them continue to prosper while simultaneously improving the quality of life of their employees. Other familiar practices and benefits continue to contribute to flexibility and strengthened families as well, including assistance program referrals, seminars, and counseling; assistance and subsidies for work-related moves; and leaves and subsidies for education of employees and family members. Looking ahead, as more workplaces and homes become networked electronically, it is to be expected that some of today’s new-fanged arrangements will become familiar too.


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