Flexible Scheduling Comes Out of Flux

June 1, 1996
A decade ago, flexible work schedules were about as common as e-mail. In other words, not very. Progressive companies were touted for their broad-minded policies of part-time and flextime work, and some experimented with telecommuting. Driving these management practices was the magnanimous attitude that women with young children needed greater flexibility if they were to stay in the workforce. It was a benevolent philosophy, not necessarily a business-driven one.

How times have changed.

Today with increasing numbers of organizations offering flexible work arrangements of some type, flexibility is as widely anticipated as a computer with a functioning modem and e-mail capabilities. Although most people continue to work in traditional ways during traditional hours, the idea of flexibility is as common as the sound of a dial tone whirring through a computer. The most sweeping change? No longer are flexible hours and a flexible workplace the domain of young mothers. All types of workers want these options. And, a variety of companies are offering them because they make good business sense.

Flexibility enhances productivity.
However dramatic the changes may seem when compared with 10 years ago, the changes within the last few years are evolutionary, not revolutionary. More and more companies continue to experiment with different types of options, accommodating a greater variety of employees through these options. More and more are discovering that in specific cases, these arrangements help with productivity, decrease turnover and reduce employee stress. There are several companies who have offered flexible work arrangements for so long they've moved the effort from a programmatic solution to a more fundamental endeavor that has affected corporate policy and culture.

To measure and propagate the success of such forward-looking companies, Catalyst—the New York City-based workplace think tank—unveiled its most recent report in February of this year, "Making Work Flexible: Policy to Practice." The report is based on a study it initiated in the Fall of 1994 in which the group identified 31 corporations and professional firms nationally recognized as having exemplary flexible workplace policies and whose motivation wasn't altruistic but business-driven. From confidential telephone interviews and several roundtable discussions, the organization developed guidelines to help other companies create and manage flexibility (see "Making Work Flexible: A Summary"). Among these companies are the Bank of Montreal, Price Waterhouse LLP, KPMG Peat Marwick, Deloitte & Touche LLP, NationsBank, Aetna Life & Casualty, Corning, Steelcase Inc. and Pillsbury.

As Marcia Brumit Kropf, vice president of the Research and Advisory Services division for Catalyst points out, until recently, flexibility was viewed as an issue for women phasing back into full-time work after a maternity leave. Now anyone—male or female—may find work needs affected by obligations outside of work: the care of young children, the needs of school-age children, the care of elderly parents, personal development or community work. And American workers of both genders currently face pressure to work long hours and to put in the face time at the office. From the employer's side, flexibility aids in retaining and recruiting valuable employees. It responds to demographic changes in the workforce, reduces turnover, services people in different time zones, meets cyclical or seasonal business demands, provides continuity on projects and in client service, allows operation of a round-the-clock business, and helps maintain morale and performance after reengineering or downsizing.

"The bottom line is to try to recognize and accommodate the needs of a diverse population," says Michael V. Littlejohn, managing director at New York City-based Price Waterhouse LLP. "Flexibility now carries with it a much larger connotation than some of the traditional definitions such as flextime or part-time. It's trying to recognize flexible work arrangements that are more far-reaching."

As if to underscore Catalyst's findings, New York City-based Hewitt Associates LLC unveiled a recent report, "Work and Family Benefits Provided by Major U.S. Employers in 1994," which shows that 66% of the 1,035 organizations surveyed offered flexible scheduling (up 6% from the year before). Of those, 71% offered flextime, 65% offered part-time, 34% offered job sharing, 21% offered compressed work schedules, 14% offered summer hours and 5% provide other options. Flexible arrangements include two types of options: full-time and reduced-time. Full-time options include flextime (workday begins/ends when employee and manager decide), flexible week (fewer but longer days, shorter days in six-day weeks), or flex place (branch offices, telecommuting). Reduced time options include part-time or job sharing.

But creating company policy is one thing; implementing workable practices can be quite another. Consequently, a key component of the Catalyst report is to highlight organizations that put these principles to work.

Provide a variety of flex options.
Toronto-based Bank of Montreal brings together Catalyst's four goals: It builds organizational support for flexibility; it supports managers and users of the practice; it internalizes (or incorporates) the practice, and it sustains the momentum.

The Bank of Montreal has long been a proponent of advancing women throughout its ranks. One example of this is the 1991 Task Force on the Advancement of Women, which was a year-long project sponsored by the bank's president and chief operating officer, Tony Comper. The task force undertook the largest survey of the bank's employees ever. Not only did it uncover myths about women and why they weren't progressing through the organization, but it also provided the basis for developing action plans. The entire flexible work arrangement initiative was an outgrowth of its findings.

"It created an understanding that one of the key things we need to do is to formally support employees—men and women—who are balancing their multiple commitments to work and family, education and community," says Diane Ashton, vice president of employee programs and the office of work place equality. "The connection to the business case is apparent when we look at demographics and understand our workforce and become concerned we don't have enough women making their way through to our senior jobs (policy-, program-, and product-development type of jobs). We realized we were neglecting the talents of half the working population."

As a result, the company developed a policy called Balancing Multiple Commitments that incorporates flexibility in many ways: through flextime, flexible workweek, part-time on a permanent basis, job sharing and flex place. Flex place allows employees to work two or three days a week in another bank branch that's either closer to home or in a more convenient location. The bank provides this flex space by setting up several workstations at different locations, each with phones, PCs, and other necessities that allow people to work outside of their normal workplace. This also is convenient when someone has appointments with clients that aren't conveniently located to their usual place of work.

The policies are working. At least, they're having the desired effect with regard to encouraging women in their upward movement. For example, the number of female executive officers grew significantly: In 1990, the number increased 6%; in 1991, 9%; and in 1995, 19%.

Furthermore, of the 2,125 positions in the Senior Management Group in October 1991, only 13% were women; exactly four years later the figure had risen to 20.4%.

Ashton herself benefited from the policy when she created an arrangement whereby she worked full time but was paid only for 90% of it. It gave her one half-day a week she saved up. "I used that time to be able to spend more time with my children because they get a lot more time off than our standard four weeks of vacation," she says. "It just enabled me to carry on when there was an emergency. When somebody got chickenpox, I didn't feel like I had to scramble for arrangements." This safety valve relieved the burden.

Build organizational support.
The bank combines all of the important factors cited in the Catalyst report. One of the most important features of Bank of Montreal's flexibility approach is that the policy's spirit is incorporated into the strategic development plan and the business plan. Executive-level managers—and all other managers—create objectives for hiring, promoting and retaining people and decide how flexibility will fit into those target plans. These create a baseline. Performance appraisals also include attention to flexibility, with each manager remaining accountable for meeting individual goals.

In other words, both employees and managers are responsible for translating these work arrangements into viable options. For example, employees initiate a proposal that explains why the flex arrangement would make their lives easier and present it to local management. The onus of responsibility, though, lies with the manager to be flexible and open-minded. As a protection for both of them, they define a trial period after which time, they sit down and evaluate it.

This shared responsibility—and trial period—allows employees to generate extraordinary creativity because they can try out different options. For example, a compressed workweek of three days may sound liberating. The bank's operating hours allow this type of work option since many of the branches are open six days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., allowing employees the option of a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday shift or a Thursday, Friday, Saturday shift. However, although many employees say they would appreciate it, and believe they've discovered the perfect solution, others may find it an exhausting schedule after trying it for a month.

Since the solutions are employee-generated, employees write a letter to their manager and, once approved, they send a copy to the office of Work Place Equality. This not only establishes the Work Place Equality department as a resource center, it also allows the center to track and understand what people are doing. "The spirit of this policy is that it's employee- initiated," says Ashton. "They come up with the proposal, and it's worked out at a local level between the employee and the manager. This has been one of the strengths of the policy."

Support managers and employees.
One way in which the Bank of Montreal propagated its views was through a 100-page book, "Flexing Your Options." It describes the philosophy, policies and procedures of the bank's commitment to flexible work, including a detailed checklist for a basic employee-initiated proposal. It also includes items such as commonly asked questions by managers, sample manager replies and phone numbers for obtaining further information.

To set the tone, before introducing the five flexible options (flextime, flexible workweek, permanent part-time, job sharing, flex place), the first paragraph of the document states, "While such arrangements aren't for everyone, there is compelling evidence that increased self-management translates into increased productivity. The bank is committed to flex arrangements because they make good business sense. The corporate policy, Balancing Multiple Commitments, outlines the direct relationship between helping employees balance their commitments to work, family, education and community, and improved employee morale, increased productivity and superior customer service."

Internalize the practice; sustain the commitment.
The bank also reinforced its philosophy by accepting these flexible arrangements and by assessing employees' experiences. It believes this practice is important so the arrangements can be tracked for their impact and benefit to the organization. This is one reason the office of Work Place Equality requests a copy of the approved work-arrangement proposal.

Clearly, the bank sustains the commitment by including goals and expectations regarding flexibility in its performance reviews. In fact, employees even rate their managers on this dimension. Each manager's scores (by his or her subordinates) are averaged, and the employees give their boss feedback about the scores.

This integral respect for the concept of flexibility permeates the organization. Therefore, programs are used by individuals in many different situations. For instance, the original intent was to help women advance by relieving some of the family burden (child care time pressures), but others are using it as well: single fathers, for example, or one man who works 40 hours in four days to enable him to spend one day a week leading Boy Scout activities. And, these kinds of arrangements are being used throughout the organization, not just with junior people. Flexibility is permeating the culture. "I know we have senior managers who are either working on a part-time arrangement, compressed workweek or flex place. These aren't people who have been sidelined. They're individuals with important jobs, which is key. We've been able to make flexibility part of the culture. It isn't just seen as something for our most junior people," says Ashton.

Make flexibility a bottom-line issue.
Accounting firm Price Waterhouse LLP (PW) also is lauded in the Catalyst study as a company that integrates flexibility companywide. Indeed, PW is redefining its organization because of an increasingly diverse workforce. Fundamental to that is embracing flexibility. Littlejohn, who heads the Office of Diversity Programs as well as national recruitment, says the effort is twofold: both philosophical and concrete. "The effort recognizes and accommodates the needs of a diverse population (a broader definition than women and minorities, it includes single parents, people who have issues with elder care, child care, and others who want more balance between their personal and work lives).

"Flexibility in the firm goes beyond the concrete part-time and flex-work arrangements. It also involves a philosophical perspective." According to Littlejohn, "We're trying to change the mindset of the firm.

"Traditionally, of course, the mindset was that you give 110% to the firm, and if that means a 60- or 70-hour week, so be it. I've seen a distinctive shift over the past couple of years, recognizing the fact we can no longer expect that of our people."

As in the case of the Bank of Montreal, demographics are fueling the changes. "We have to recognize that as the demographics of society change, so do the firms. For us not only to be productive, but also to be competitive, we have to meet head-on the reality that people have different needs."

Although part-time work options may not seem like such a spectacular innovation at first glance, they're indeed challenging for intensely client-focused firms for which on-the-spot service and attention are synonymous with revenue. Consequently, for PW to adapt its philosophy toward traditional ways of working, it had to reconsider the entire notion of work styles and how to service customers effectively while being responsive to employees. In fact, there were two forces at play simultaneously. One was the needs of the employees. The other was the changing needs of the clients, who have become quite diverse in their profiles. The firm also believes that its clients want professionals who reflect their population and, thereby, their concerns.

Technology can support managers and users.
One of the tools in PW's network is the company's sophisticated technological infrastructure that allows partners and associates to establish virtual offices. With Lotus Notes and voicemail, laptop computers become phones, meeting planners and fax machines, allowing employees to support their clients not only in the client's location, but from anywhere. Technology also has diminished the need for individuals to come into Price Waterhouse offices to transfer information. For example, they previously had to be in the office to have access to files, perform research and provide colleagues with information. No more. Now, most of that can be done remotely via technology.

Given these changes, which facilitate responsiveness to both clients and employees, the company is attempting to extend flexibility in formal and informal ways. PW believes flexible work policies are a powerful tool for attracting and retaining people—a competitive necessity. "Big Six professional services firms face a big challenge because people look at them as a mill—a sweat shop where people work 60- and 80- hour weeks for three or four or five years and we throw them away if we don't make them a partner," says Littlejohn. "We had to create the mindset that we're becoming a kinder place to work; that we'll try our best to accommodate employees' needs."

And, fundamental to that, the firm is changing some of its values and implementing a new career model. Historically, individuals joined the company shortly after college and worked for eight to 10 years. If they made partner, great. If not, they left the company. It was a rigid career path that allowed no leeway for other options. According to Littlejohn, several problems prompted PW to change the situation. Number one, the firm was losing very good people because they hadn't made partner within the allotted time; number two, employees were saying that partnership wasn't for everyone and alternatives to the partner track would be valued; and number three, clients were expressing the need to have professional service providers who were not only good consultants but also had a depth of knowledge in their specialty. Consequently, the idea of success broadened to include deep technical specialists as well as individuals who wanted a career on the macro level (wanted partnership). Expected time frames also were changed dramatically. Now, there are several career tracks based on the achievement of milestones rather than on the length of time to complete those milestones. Compensation is based accordingly.

Enter the notion of part-time and flextime arrangements. With these essential changes in the structure of the firm, the flex alternatives become viable. No small thing. This is a fundamental shift in the way Price Waterhouse approaches business and thinks about its employees. It relates to changing the culture of PW.

"Because relationships are such a key in a professional services environment, and our clients are paying us a fee, they have certain expectations," says Littlejohn. We can't just say unequivocally we're going to implement something irrespective of our clients' wishes. It requires us to not only sell our employees on this, but we also have to sell our clients. We have to sell our clients on the fact it's good business for them to have someone onsite four days a week versus five days. It's really in the client's best interest to work for a balance so our people are happy and they're happy."

Communication serves managers and employees.
One of the most helpful ways PW communicates its policies is through its newsletters and other organization-wide communication vehicles. It uses these methods to show how flexibility can work and achieve business results as well as satisfy individual needs. Via its communication channels, it relates information such as the fact more than 400 people are working flexibly, including 90 managers and two partners. It also encourages the use of these flexible work possibilities by stating the names of people employees can speak with if they're interested in discussing flexibility.

Price Waterhouse's essential commitment to flexibility comes through as a business imperative. Indeed, the firm appointed its first woman to the top management team whose responsibilities include building the organization's workforce for the next century. Her highly visible task is to develop and evaluate the new career-development paths and service-delivery approaches that will shape PW's future workplace.

Flexible work arrangements are a business imperative.
More and more frequently, as evidenced by Price Waterhouse and the Bank of Montreal, organizations achieve several business advantages when they adopt flex work practices. Paralleling society's changing demographics and expectations about leading a more balanced life, companies find that allowing employees to direct some of their work—where, when and how they get the job done—not only yields benefits in productivity and retention, but in customer responsiveness as well. By applying technology and many of the changes that already have occurred in the current workplace, they find satisfied, productive, efficient employees translate into revenue.

Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, pp. 34-43.