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Workers’ Ideas For Improving Alternative Work Situations

December 1, 1998
Related Topics: Scheduling, Telecommuting, Featured Article
For 16 years, Victoria Dienes slaved away in the circulation department of a daily newspaper outside of Cleveland. She survived two to three deadlines a day and was often on-call around the clock. Despite her devotion, Dienes was passed over twice for promotions she felt she had earned.

After a lot of soul searching, 44-year-old Dienes left the newspaper, enrolled in night school and now is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She pays the bills by working full-time as a temporary employee. “I started temping 18 months ago as a way to find another full-time position,” she says. “But I soon discovered that temp work gives me more flexibility than a normal job. I often set my own hours so when finals come around, I can easily take two weeks off to study.” The situation is so ideal that Dienes plans to continue temping until she gets her degree two to three years from now.

Dienes is one of a growing number of workers who has consciously chosen an alternative work arrangement because it meets lifestyle needs. While a lot has been written about the advantages of flexible and contingent work arrangements, most of it is from the employer’s perspective. But the benefits of temporary employment, job sharing, part-time work, telecommuting and independent contractors aren’t just one-sided. Employers are able to reap the rewards of these flexible work situations because they also work well for employees.

To learn why people choose alternative work situations, Workforce talked to an independent contractor, a full-time temporary employee, a telecommuter and a job-sharer. We wanted to know why employees choose these work arrangements, what the personal and professional rewards are, and what’s challenging about these positions. Most importantly, we wanted to know what advice they have for HR about how to make alternative work situations even more effective.

What we discovered is that all of these workers like their arrangements and want to continue working the same way for years to come. What does this mean for HR? Obviously, people who like their work are likely to be more productive workers. For this reason, companies that don’t offer alternative work arrangements would do well to consider them. But even if you do offer the kind of work situations that meet employee needs, there may be ways to improve them.

So read on. While these workers believe HR does a pretty good job managing alternative work arrangements, they do offer several suggestions for improvement. And to make sure their suggestions hit the mark, we ran their suggestions by the experts. See if you’re doing the right things in the right ways.

Independent contractor feels like a valued contributor.
According to the United States Department of Labor, 6.7 percent of the U.S. workforce -- or 8.5 million Americans -- now classify themselves as independent contractors. An overwhelming majority of these individuals (84 percent) prefer these arrangements to regular full-time employment.

Independent contractors allow companies to manage workload demands and acquire specialized skills at rates typically 20 to 30 percent lower than the cost of full-time employees. In addition to saving on salaries, companies also save on payroll taxes, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, benefits, office space and equipment.

In the last couple of years, Millie Reith has vacationed in Japan (where her family lives), in New York (where her husband’s family lives) and in colorful locales such as Italy and Washington’s San Juan Islands. In between trips, she has also managed to take several weeks off to move an elderly aunt out of her apartment and into a convalescent home. Unlike many employees, Reith didn’t stress out about how to get the time off work for travel and family business. She simply fits it into her schedule.

As a freelance graphic artist, Reith produces computer graphics on assignment for companies like Disney Studios, Virgin Interactive and Acura Motors. Her assignments typically last two to three weeks, and unlike many freelancers, she works onsite using the client’s computer equipment. Whenever she needs time off, she simply turns down an assignment.

Reith began working as an independent contractor in 1993 when she was laid off from a job. Just months away from getting married, she decided to freelance because it would give her more time to plan her wedding and take a honeymoon. As it turned out, she liked the flexibility and variety so much that she can’t imagine ever again working for one company full time. “My husband gets five weeks of vacation a year and we both like to travel,” Reith explains. Her job flexibility helps them have time to travel worldwide.

But in addition to the tremendous personal benefits, Reith says being an independent contractor has helped her grow professionally. “With contract work, the goals are very specific,” she says. “I always know what I’m working toward, so I’m never bored.” Meanwhile, she continues to develop her computer skills and has learned about many different industries.

Despite the advantages, there are challenges to working as an independent contractor that Reith says HR managers can help alleviate. Her advice to HR about managing independent contractors is:

  • Be prepared. Have equipment set up, programs loaded, resources on hand and so on. Also, introduce the freelancer to people who can answer questions.
  • Show independent contractors you appreciate them. Like all employees, they want to feel like valued contributors.
  • Pay on time. “It’s hard to wait 60 or 90 days after a job for payment.”
  • Make sure freelancers are clear on policies regarding hourly pay, overtime, mileage and expenses.
“Overall, the companies I’ve worked for have made me feel like an important part of their team,” Reith says. “I wouldn’t be hired if they didn’t really need me.”

An Expert’s Opinion on the Independent Contractor’s Suggestions
Donna M. Dell, vice president and director of human resources for ABM Industries Inc. in San Francisco comments: “Reith’s suggestions make complete sense. It’s particularly important for independent contractors to understand the policies, practices and procedures of the company they are working for, beyond just those that apply to the contractor’s professional relationship with the company. HR cannot expect independent contractors to be valuable contributors without clear direction to that end.

“Because independent contractors indirectly represent the company through their efforts, HR should:

  • “See to it that the contractor spends a little time learning about the corporate culture, as well as the product or project he or she is working on.
  • “Provide a cooperative and supportive work environment.
  • “Check with legal counsel to make sure they’re within legal guidelines for use of independent contractors.”

Full-time temp likes flexibility, but wants to be “one of the gang.”
In the last 10 years, the temporary workforce has swelled from 1 million people to more than 2.7 million workers, or almost 2 percent of the workforce. In fact, according to a study by the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services based in Alexandria, Virginia, between 1996 and 1997 the payroll for temporary help swelled by almost 20 percent.

While temporary assignments can last anywhere from one day to over a year, the average duration is 10 weeks. Like independent contractors, temporary employees allow companies to manage workload without incurring the expense -- or obligation -- of hiring a full-time employee.

Last year, Glen McIntosh spent months looking for work, only to have door after door slammed in his face. “I’m not a young buck anymore,” he says. “I know companies aren’t supposed to discriminate, but I found it difficult to find work because of my age.”

Desperate for a job, McIntosh decided to try temporary work. Within a week of contacting the San Diego office of Accountemps, a nationwide temporary-staffing firm, he was placed on assignment. He has worked steadily ever since for companies as diverse as a high-tech firm to a chain of clothing stores. His specialty? Collections. “I’m the one who tries to get you to make your payments,” he admits.

It’s not work many people aspire to, but McIntosh loves it -- and not because he likes wrestling money away from people. He likes temporary work because it offers a boatload of advantages over traditional employment.

First, there’s the variety. “My assignments typically last just two to three months and every place is different. This is good because I get bored easily.”

Second, he likes the flexibility. “If I need time off, I just ask for it.” He uses this time to restore old cars, to load up the motor home and head out with his wife, and to take care of his handicapped 33-year-old son who lives at home.

Third, he appreciates the fact that if he doesn’t like something about an assignment -- like the hours, the commute or the “jerk” who hired him -- he can ask to be reassigned.

Finally, he finds it refreshing that when companies hire him through Accountemps, they only care about his ability to do a job. “There are no barriers with respect to age,” he says.

For all these reasons, what started out merely as a way for McIntosh to find work has turned into a permanent employment preference. “I’ll be retiring in eight years, and I can no longer imagine dragging myself back and forth to the same old place every day,” he explains.

Despite the advantages of temporary work, McIntosh has had difficulties. The hardest is when he’s treated like “just a temp. When everyone is feasting on pizza down the hall and I’m not invited ... well, that doesn’t feel very good.” It’s also tough when he isn’t notified that an assignment has ended until after it’s over. “This makes it hard to plan ahead,” he says.

For HR people looking to improve their relationships with temporary workers, McIntosh suggests:

  • Treat temps like a valued part of the team.
  • Give the employee -- or the agency -- as much notice as possible about when a job will be ending.
  • Make sure you’re prepared. Have office space, computer, phone and other necessary resources ready. “I once worked for a company for just five hours,” McIntosh says. “I was sent home because they couldn’t get it together.”
  • Ask the temp for suggestions about ways you can improve the work. Because McIntosh has performed collections work for many companies, he knows what processes are and aren’t effective. “Yet nobody asks for my input,” he says.
Finally, McIntosh suggests: “Try us old guys. You’ll like us.”

An Expert’s Opinion on the Temp’s Suggestions
Richard A. Wahlquist, executive vice president of National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services in Alexandria, Virginia says: “McIntosh is one of a growing number of employees who have chosen temporary work as a lifestyle that offers variety and flexibility. This lifestyle choice has been made possible, in part, because most staffing firms offer comprehensive benefit plans that include vacation and holiday pay, health and other insurance programs, and pension and retirement provisions such as 401(k).

“McIntosh is right that HR executives must be prepared for the temporary workers they’ve requested. I urge companies to work closely with their staffing firms to determine the job description, necessary qualifications and assignment duration for each position.

“To get the most from temporary help, HR managers should also:

  • “Communicate with employees who will be working with the temp about why the temp was hired and for how long.
  • “Make sure the temp is introduced to others, especially the receptionist.
  • “Have all the necessary resources available.
  • “Thoroughly explain the parameters of the job.
“Also, while HR might be tempted to offer permanent jobs to temporary workers, they shouldn’t without first discussing it with the staffing firm who’s the temp’s employer of record.”

Telecommuter’s routine doesn’t change working at home, but her productivity does.
Depending on which study you read, between 20 and 58 percent of employers now offer telecommuting arrangements to their employees. In fact, current estimates put the number of U.S. telecommuters at 12 million. These situations allow companies to save money on central office space and support services while also boosting productivity, raising employee satisfaction and reducing sick time usage. Have any doubt? Check out these statistics:

  • A telecommuting project completed by the city of Los Angeles reduced sick time by an average of five days per year per employee.
  • A telecommuting project at Merrill Lynch raised employee satisfaction by 30 percent.
  • IBM estimates that telecommuters have saved the company $75 million in real estate costs.
Betsy Englesson gets up every morning at 5 am, takes her dogs for a run, showers, puts on her makeup and heads to the office. Because she works at home as a telecommuter, her commute takes all of 10 seconds. By 7:30 am, she’s hard at work.

As global account manager for Oracle Corp. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, Englesson’s boss and direct report are in California, her co-workers are a team of people in Germany and she has one colleague in Philadelphia. Telecommuting makes perfect sense for her because most of her meetings take place over the phone or online. Why does she bother with makeup and showers and alarms when she works at home? “It’s how I get into the work mindset,” she explains.

Englesson started telecommuting 3 and a half years ago when she worked for a Philadelphia-based marketing firm. Working from home three to four days a week, Englesson saw her productivity level skyrocket. But at the same time, her stress level dropped because she no longer had to worry about getting to work on snow-slicked streets and she could ignore tiresome office politics.

One of the reasons she took the job at Oracle several months ago was because she could continue telecommuting. Although she does have an office onsite, she only uses it for client meetings.

“I’m very disciplined and structured, so telecommuting works well for me,” Englesson says. “I’m thankful for the ability to put my head down and get work done without having to listen to all the psychodrama in the office.” Englesson also likes being able to work with her two collies and her husband, a lawyer who also works at home. “We have lunch together all the time,” she admits.

This isn’t to say there aren’t any challenges. Like many full-time telecommuters, Englesson fights feelings of isolation. Regularly scheduled phone meetings with her co-workers help. But she also struggles with equipment issues. When her computer breaks down, she has to hire someone to come to her house to help. “I can’t just walk into the office next door for assistance,” she says.

While Englesson’s experience has been overwhelmingly positive, she does have two key suggestions for HR managers about how to improve their company’s telecommuting situations:

  • First, empower the telecommuter to make necessary job decisions. “If you’re a micromanager, forget it,” says Englesson.
  • Second, maintain communication on a consistent basis. Regular telephone or in-person meetings are essential for the telecommuter to feel connected to work back at the office.
Does Englesson think telecommuting is something more companies should consider? “Absolutely,” she says. “With the talent pool being what it is, if you find somebody good for a job, why hassle the person about where he or she is working?”

An Expert’s Comments on the Telecommuter’s Suggestions
Jack Nilles, president of JALA International Inc., a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm specializing in telework development, suggests: “This is a good example of successful telecommuting, and the results are typical of many telecommuting situations. Our cost-benefit analyses of a wide variety of telework situations show that employers can expect annual net benefits ranging between $6,000 and $12,000 per telecommuter once the startup costs have been recovered. But it’s important to note that not every prospective telecommuter-telemanager pair is a good risk for home-based telecommuting. Englesson’s first recommendation -- to empower telecommuters -- is vital.

“Here are a few employer must do’s for successful telecommuting:

  • “Develop a program plan before telecommuting starts. It should list the bottom-line objectives and performance measures and include any operating rules and regulations.
  • “Select employee-supervisor pairs based on their work attitudes and ability to communicate effectively with each other.
  • “Ensure that telecommuters have adequate technological support.
  • “Train the prospective telecommuters and telemanagers on results rather than process-oriented management techniques.
  • “Help supervisors and telecommuters be proactive about maintaining communication with each other and with colleagues and clients.
“When companies take the time to give the telecommuters and their supervisors the tools for success, the productivity of both parties rises.”

Job sharer finds communication and managerial support are the biggest challenges.
According to a 1997 survey of work/ family benefits by Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Illinois, 37 percent of employers offer job-sharing arrangements to their employees. These situations have been shown to help companies retain valuable employees, increase productivity, reduce burnout and increase employee motivation, commitment and loyalty. Furthermore, with two people sharing one job, there’s better job continuity if an employee is sick or on vacation.

Marcia Leander first got the idea to job share two years ago when her two children started kindergarten and nursery school. You’d think when children finally hit school age it might make a working mother’s life easier, but it didn’t. “It’s important for me to stay on top of my kids’ schoolwork and be able to pick out their outfits for picture day,” Leander says. “But working full-time, that was practically impossible and I desperately wanted some sanity in my home life.”

As a professional woman with years of experience, Leander never considered not working. “I like the rewards and sense of accomplishment,” she explains. Nor did she want a part-time position simply to fill her time. That’s why two years ago, she and Lois Judge, another professional working mother, approached their employer, UNUM Life Insurance Co., about sharing a job. After presenting a proposal to management, the two were hired for an open position and now share the title: “manager of organizational development for information technology.” Together, they manage a staff of four and are responsible for recruiting and retaining the company’s staff of IT professionals.

These days, Judge works all day Monday and Tuesday, Leander works all day Thursday and Friday, and the two overlap from 8 am to 3 pm on Wednesday. The personal benefits are exactly what they hoped for -- more time at home. They’ve reaped rewards professionally, as well. “The best benefit is there’s always someone there who understands my work and who can commiserate if something goes wrong,” Leander says.

Additionally, the company benefits because the position is rarely left uncovered due to vacation or illness, and because two people bring their ideas and creativity to a job instead of just one.

After two years of job-sharing, Leander and Judge have learned what it takes to make the arrangement work. For the job sharers themselves, communication is key. “We talk virtually every day of the week,” Leander says. But they have some advice for HR professionals who may be considering letting employees job share:

  • Communicate the benefit of job-sharing to management. “Here, company officers were supportive, but directors and managers weren’t as open to job shares,” explains Leander. “I think HR has a role to play in helping the company overall become more comfortable with the idea.”
  • Provide adequate space and resources. Even though Leander and Judge share a job, it’s difficult for them -- especially on days they are both in the office -- to share a desk and computer. They agree that an office with two desks and two computers would be very helpful.
  • Make communication-skills training available. “I didn’t know how hard the communication part was going to be,” Leander says. “We share a tight space, we’re jointly responsible for projects and we don’t always have the same idea about how work should be done.”
The two have worked hard learning how to negotiate, be flexible and give the other person credit. With the right support, Leander believes job sharing can work well for more companies.

An Expert’s Comments on the Job Sharer’s Suggestions
Barney Olmsted, co-director, San Francisco-based New Ways to Work, comments: “Job sharing has been slowly gaining acceptance as a way to work part-time in a full-time position, but it’s still a new idea. At New Ways to Work, we’ve always believed that any job can be shared, but not every employee can share a job. It takes work, trust and communication, not only between partners, but also with co-workers, supervisors and clients. It’s particularly important to continually communicate about individual responsibilities and current schedules.

“As the UNUM sharers point out, support from management and HR is vital. The managerial support can be strengthened by doing some benchmarking and looking at how managers in other companies feel about job sharing after they have tried it. Most give it an A+.

“A company that wants to encourage the option of sharing a job should:

  • “Set up a process -- such as intranet postings -- for finding partners.“Change HR policies to support flexible work arrangements.
  • “Control staffing costs by using a full-time equivalency compensation system.
  • “Make benefits available on a pro-rated basis.
  • “Compile guidelines for managers and employees about how to assess whether a flexible work arrangement is appropriate for their situation.”

As Leander says: “People who want these situations have a vested interest in making them work.” It makes sense that people who like their work situations will do all they can to make the situations work for the company.

But if this argument doesn’t convince your company to offer more alternative work situations, how about this one: With the unemployment rate as low as it presently is, companies everywhere are scrambling for motivated, productive workers. If you don’t offer employees arrangements that meet their needs, chances are they’ll find other companies that will.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.42-49.

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