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Flexible Workplace Programs Promote Work-Life Balance

“Work-life balance” is one of the most popular HR buzz phrases. Yet until a few years ago, work-life concerns were relatively unheard of. Nontraditional workplace and scheduling alternatives like working from home were considered a perk available to a fortunate few or as a temporary accommodation for a stressed-out employee.

Employer programs like the flexible workplace, designed to promote work-life balance, are no longer time-limited exceptions to the traditional notion of working “9-to-5.” Work-life balance programs have gained acceptance as a component of strategic planning and management; use of such programs promotes employee engagement, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. It’s estimated that 75 percent of U.S. employers offer flexible workplace options.

This article focuses on various aspects of flexible workplace programs, reviews some of the legal obligations imposed on employers, and outlines suggestions to help you recognize and respond to potential liability issues associated with the flexible workplace.

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Shifting priorities
The increased interest in work-life balance is directly related to a shift in priorities in the workforce. “The New Workforce Reality: Insights for Today, Implications for Tomorrow” is a collaborative study by Simmons School of Management and Bright Horizons Family Solutions. According to the 2005 workplace survey of 2,000 employees, 95 percent rated their lives away from work equally or more important than their jobs.

When asked to identify the characteristics of the ideal job, the leading responses (from both men and women) included working for a company and supervisors that respect personal and family concerns. When asked about the gaps between their current job and their ideal job, the majority of participants wanted (1) an opportunity to work some of their scheduled work hours at home, (2) more control over their work schedule, and (3) to work for a company with flexible work policies and programs.

The survey results indicate that work-life balance and greater flexibility in work scheduling are critical issues to today’s workforce.

In addition, workplace demographics (“baby boomers” and Generation X and Y’ers) affect the significance of and need for work-life balance. The “sandwich generation,” a baby boomers’ subgroup, is distinguished by their dual caregiving responsibilities to their children and their aging parents. A flexible work schedule allows them to fulfill those responsibilities, which promotes greater focus and productivity during work hours.

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Often, Generation Y employees are characterized as idealistic, socially conscious, antiestablishment, and concerned about job stress, among other things. Increased earnings and overtime pay may not motivate them as much as time off from work. Generation X employees are characterized as socially conscious “free spirits.” In an employment setting, they are motivated by benefits and time off for recreation. A flexible work schedule and sensitivity to work-life balance issues are necessary to recruit and retain Generation X and Y’ers.

The flexible workplace is also a reflection of the times. Advances in communications technology have made it possible to be connected to the office from almost anywhere in the world. Being “at work” is no longer defined as being “in” the office.

Flexible workplace alternatives
Flextime. A flextime work schedule is a departure from the traditional 9-to-5 work schedule. Within defined limits, employees are allowed flexibility with respect to the time their workday begins and ends.

For example, employees who work eight-hour days may begin work between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and end the workday between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Using flextime scheduling, you can establish “core time” (e.g., 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) when all employees are required to be physically present at work.

Some of the advantages of flextime scheduling include a reduction in absenteeism; employees can schedule personal and family appointments without missing work. It also allows you greater flexibility in handling uneven workloads, and customer service is increased by the extended work hours.

Flextime scheduling may be particularly beneficial for employees with caregiving responsibilities. It’s being used in metropolitan areas to address rush-hour traffic delays and other commuting issues. Some of the disadvantages of flextime scheduling include increases in recordkeeping requirements and supervisory demands to accommodate the extended work hours.

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Compressed workweeks. In a compressed workweek schedule, full-time employees work fewer than five days per week and more than eight hours per day. Workweeks of four 10-hour days or three 12-hour days are common examples of compressed workweek schedules. Employers operating seven days per week, like hospitals and nursing homes, lend themselves to the compressed workweek scheduling option.

A compressed workweek allows greater flexibility for personal or family-time activities and for scheduling personal appointments. Like flextime scheduling, the compressed workweek improves employee job satisfaction and morale, reduces absenteeism, and aids in recruiting new employees.

The primary disadvantages include increased recordkeeping requirements and a greater potential for overtime in the event of unexpected employee absences.

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Job sharing. Job sharing is simply a flextime schedule that allows two part-time employees to share one full-time job. The option enables employers an opportunity to retain qualified employees who can’t or don’t want to work a full-time schedule. Job sharing can also be used during a reduction in force to limit laying off otherwise qualified employees.

Clear and open communication between the two workers is required for job sharing to be effective. In some cases, both individuals may be scheduled to work overlapping days periodically to facilitate better communication.

Telecommuting. Telecommuting, or the “virtual office,” is perhaps the most controversial of the alternative work schedule arrangements. It allows employees to work away from the office, usually at home, using remote access software and other telecommunications equipment.

Certain jobs lend themselves to telecommuting. An employee responsible for responding to customer questions via telephone or Internet may be an ideal candidate for telecommuting. On the other hand, telecommuting is impractical for a job that requires face-to-face interaction with coworkers, customers, or clients. A successful telecommuting program requires trustworthy, efficient employees.

Supervising telecommuting employees can be a logistical challenge. Progress on an assigned project is difficult to monitor on a day-to-day basis. Job evaluation processes may need to be revised to accommodate the distinctions of the virtual office.

Under the right circumstances, telecommuting has numerous advantages for the employee: It allows very flexible work hours, more effective use of time, and cost savings due to reduction or elimination of a daily commute. It also has its disadvantages: Telecommuting can make an employee feel isolated, alienated, and expendable.

Any successful telecommuting program starts with employees who are motivated and qualified to work independently. It’s important that telecommuters have open and consistent communication with the home office, which might require the telecommuter to attend periodic meetings in person.

Managers of telecommuting employees must be comfortable giving advice and direction by electronic communication. They also must be organized, patient, and have management skills that focus on results.

Workplace standards must be developed to address ergonomics and safety concerns. Like other flexible workplace options, administrative recordkeeping (particularly with respect to recording time worked) is more complicated. You likely will need to equip the remote work site with telecommunication equipment and then maintain that equipment.

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Legal issues
An employer’s response to work-life balance issues and flexible work scheduling requests involves a number of legal obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Here are some steps you can take to fulfill those obligations and reduce the liability risks inherent in the process.

  1. Create a policy. A carefully drafted flexible workplace policy should set out the standards and process requirements of the program, outline the specific work schedule alternatives, and include the following:
    • Eligibility requirements. Determining eligibility for a flexible work schedule is a two-part process that begins with the position in question. The essential job functions will determine whether the position is appropriate for some or all flexible work schedule options. For example, a customer service position responsible for receiving returned merchandise and documenting the basis for the return isn’t well suited for telecommuting.

      Once eligibility criteria are established for the position, eligibility requirements related to employee performance are reviewed. Well-defined, measurable, objective written standards should determine employee eligibility. Duration of employment, discipline history, performance record and history with regard to accuracy, a nd timely reporting of hours worked are some of the objective criteria you should rely on when determining eligibility for a flexible work schedule.

    • Decisionmaking authority and process. The policy should identify the specific process required to submit a flexible work request and the company representative authorized to grant the request. Although a direct supervisor may have input into the process, the ultimate decision should be delegated to a front-line manager or the HR director.

      Employees must clearly understand the company’s process in making the determinations for the position in question, the amount of interaction with other employees, customers, clients, and vendors required, the amount of day-to-day supervision recommended, the type of flexible work schedule being requested, the business needs of the company, and the availability of others when the employee won’t be available or will be available only remotely.

      Likewise, employees should clearly understand their obligations to the employer if the flexible work schedule request is granted.

    • Effect on other terms and conditions of employment. A flexible work schedule shouldn’t affect the other terms and conditions of employment, including the employee’s at-will status. The policy must acknowledge the applicability of all other company policies and procedures. A specific reminder regarding reporting workplace injuries, confidentiality of company information, and (lack of) workplace privacy is recommended for employees who will be telecommuting. Non-exempt employees should be reminded of the requirement to accurately document and report all hours worked.
    • Monitoring and evaluation. As stated above, supervising an employee on a flexible work schedule can be a challenge. Monitoring and evaluation procedures must be established and applied in a manner consistent with those applied to all employees. By policy and practice, you must clearly retain the authority to suspend, amend, or terminate the work schedule arrangement if the established eligibility requirements aren’t met.
  2. Wage and hour issues. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, nonexempt employees must be paid for all hours worked, and all hours worked must be reported accurately. Failure to report all hours worked is a risk associated with nonexempt telecommuting employees in particular. A user-friendly reporting mechanism with remote monitoring capabilities is invaluable. Whatever system is used, telecommuting employees must understand that accurate reporting of all hours worked is mandatory. Similar risks exist for the nonexempt employee working a flextime schedule.
  3. FMLA and ADA. If an employer meets the requirements under the FMLA, the FMLA-eligible employee on intermittent leave may be entitled to a reduced or otherwise flexible work schedule. An employer’s obligations under the ADA require consideration of flexible work scheduling as a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship, even if it doesn’t allow such scheduling for other employees.

    An undue hardship argument is unlikely to succeed if the company has allowed other employees to work a flexible work schedule. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recognizes flextime, job restructuring, and telecommuting as possible accommodations for a disabled employee.

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Bottom line
There are many reasons to adopt work-life balance programs such as a flexible workplace policy. Employees will be more engaged at work, exhibit greater commitment to their employers, and view the workplace as supportive. Employers benefit from having happier and more engaged employees, reduced absenteeism, increased retention rates, and potentially lower health care costs.