Study Flexibility Programs Gain Ground in Hard Times

Among employers with more than 1,000 workers, there has been a 25 percent increase in flexibility programs, a survey finds. The study was the centerpiece of a Thursday, July 23, hearing of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.

July 23, 2009
Most companies are conducting layoffs and eliminating bonuses and salary increases to survive the recession, but they are preserving programs that allow workers to set their own schedules, according to a study.

In a survey of 400 employers released Thursday, July 23, the Families and Work Institute in New York found that 81 percent have maintained flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, phased retirement and voluntary reduced hours. An additional 13 percent have increased flexibility programs, while 6 percent have eliminated them.
Among employers with more than 1,000 workers, there has been a 25 percent increase in flexibility programs. The study was the centerpiece of a July 23 hearing of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Companies are utilizing flexibility to keep on board top performers who will help them recover from the recession.

“A number of employers have recognized that if they provide flexibility, they can save jobs,” Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, said at the hearing.

Allowing employees to better integrate work with other life demands increases productivity and retention, according to Galinsky.

“Being a flexible employer tends to pay off for the business,” Galinsky said.

The study shows that 66 percent of employers have suffered declining revenue over the last year and 64 percent of those cutting costs have reduced their workforces. Among companies with 1,000 or more workers, 37 percent have used flexible work arrangements to minimize layoffs. 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York and chairwoman of the committee, said workplace flexibility is a “creative way to confront” economic challenges facing employers.

She has introduced the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would guarantee that workers can ask their employers for adjustments in the number of hours, days and locations required for their jobs.

The bill does not mandate that a company provide flexible work arrangements, but it does require that management talk with employees about the subject.

“It’s an opportunity to come up with a fit that works for employers and employees,” Maloney said.

Internal communication is important to establishing a culture of flexibility within corporations, according to Galinsky. She says that two out of five employees fear that exercising flexibility will set back their careers.

“If there’s jeopardy for using it, it doesn’t work,” Galinsky said. “We need to create a way of having dialogue.”

Discussions about flex time don’t often involve low-income workers, according to witnesses at the hearing.

“An employer may be less likely to accommodate someone who is easily replaced,” said Cynthia Thomas Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

Such an attitude toward low-wage employees is “outmoded,” according to Galinsky. “They’re the frontline people at most businesses,” she said.

In general, employers have learned from past recessions to hold on to talent that will keep them competitive when the economy recovers, Galinsky said. That’s why 83 percent of companies that have reduced employee hours have maintained the same level of benefits.

“They need to treat people they have as well as they can,” Galinsky said. “They need to take a long-term view.”

Another Maloney bill that would give federal employees paid parental leave and the recent introduction of legislation that requires employers to provide up to seven paid sick days annually have stoked Capitol Hill discussion of flexibility.

“If we are a nation that truly values families, we need to have policies in place that value families,” Maloney said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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