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San Francisco May Flex its Muscle on Flexibility - and Stability

Could it be that San Francisco values—including flexibility and stability for workers—can create value for both employees and employers?

June 12, 2013

Workplace flexibility may become the next "San Francisco value." So may schedule stability for workers.

Not long after Yahoo and Best Buy dealt blows to alternative workplace arrangements, a San Francisco supervisor is proposing a measure that would give employees who are parents or caregivers a right to request a flexible work schedule, such as telecommuting, job sharing or working part time. Under the proposal, employers could reject those requests only if the change would result in an "undue hardship" for the company or organization, including an increase in costs or a "detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer or client demands."

The legislation, from Supervisor David Chiu, has another feature that may be as important—and controversial. It centers on predictable schedules for workers. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, employers subject to state and federal overtime laws would have to provide workers with at least two weeks' notice of their schedule.

This element addresses a concern raised by advocates of low-wage workers, who often find themselves at the mercy of "just in time" schedules from employers and struggle to juggle work and family responsibilities. University of Chicago professor Susan Lambert also has argued that overly volatile schedules can backfire for companies in the form of higher turnover.

The flexibility provision of the proposal, meanwhile, could fill major gaps in workplace flexibility programs. Although many companies say they offer flexibility, programs often cover less than half of the workforce.

Chiu's measure requires approval from San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, and then would go before the city's voters. It already is generating opposition. Liberal "San Francisco values," translated into city rules such as a high minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave and an employee health care mandate, often are seen as anti-business. "Once again we're going to put San Francisco employers at a competitive disadvantage, or at least under a whole new layer of bureaucracy that interjects itself into the daily operation of businesses," Jim Lazarus of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, told the Chronicle.

Overall, though, research supports flexibility as helpful to both employers and employees. And many organizations are looking to mend, not end, alternative work programs despite high-profile setbacks at Yahoo, which called telecommuters back to the office, and Best Buy, which ended a radical program of letting employees choose when and where they worked as long as they produced good results.

Chiu argues other countries have put in place comparable policies with positive outcomes. According to the Chronicle, his legislation is modeled on similar measures in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Chiu also says he and other executives provided workplace flexibility at the online communications firm he co-founded more than a decade ago. "It vastly improved our employee loyalty," Chiu told the Chronicle. "Our turnover was extremely low."

Could it be that San Francisco values—including flexibility and stability for workers—can create value for both employees and employers?

Ed Frauenheim is associate editorial director of Human Capital Media, the parent organization of Workforce. Comment below or email him at efrauenheim@workforce.com. Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.