Last month, Michael Richman, owner of Academy Awning in Montebello, California, waded gingerly into the modern world of flexible work schedules, allowing a 22-year-old designer to come in at odd hours so he could go back to college full time.
It didn’t go well.
The designer wasn’t available midday to answer questions from an East Coast customer and was hard-pressed to quickly address concerns raised by welders and other factory employees at the awning maker, which has 35 staffers. Richman also wondered how much the designer was really working when he was alone in the office.
“It was a disaster,” Richman says. “We have to have a somewhat regimented schedule. To have people coming and going at different times creates disruption.”
America’s new flexible workplace is going through some growing pains.. Many businesses are allowing variable hours – as well as work-from-home options — to attract employees in a tight labor market. But as adoption grows, a significant share are struggling to make it work. Consultants say that’s because many companies haven’t put technology and other tools in place to ensure seamless communication and collaboration with co-workers and customers.
“They haven’t integrated it as part of their overall strategy,” says Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex + Strategy Group, which helps companies adopt flexible work arrangements. “We’re asking people to work differently but not telling them how to do it.”
As a result, some companies are throwing up their hands and going back to traditional work policies while others are ironing out the kinks through trial and error. The gap among firms is underscored by widely varying measures of the portion of businesses with flexible hours. A spring survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 57% of organizations offer flexible schedules, up from 52% in 2015.
A separate poll by Flex + Strategy revealed that 98% of companies provide some form of fluctuating hours based on a broad definition that could include letting employees leave occasionally to pick up kids at school or go to the doctor. At the other extreme are businesses that let workers choose their own hours.
Meanwhile, a survey of 501 hiring managers by USA TODAY and LinkedIn late last month showed that to attract and retain employees, 44% have put in place new strategies to permit a more flexible schedule. In fact, that’s their chief way of coping with unemployment that’s at a 50-year low of 3.5% and spells fewer available workers. Thirty-eight percent of hiring managers are raising pay and twenty-six percent allow remote work.
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While the 44% share is noteworthy, it’s lower than the other measures because it’s likely capturing only employers that have adopted formal strategies to make flexible schedules work over the long term and are confident enough to tout the policy to job seekers, Yost says.
In late 2017, the vast majority of workers said they had some degree of work flexibility but just 42% said they’d been trained on how to manage it, down from 47% in 2015, according to a survey by Flex + Strategy.
Some companies don’t formalize flexible work arrangements because they want to offer them quietly to certain employees rather than across the board, says Sara Sutton, CEO of FlexJobs, which posts jobs for remote, part-time and freelance work and provides related consulting services. That, she says, causes jealousy. Others offer flexibility but still try to reach employees during off-hours.
Millennials started it all
The shift to more flexible work set-ups has been driven by millennials, who could complete and submit their college assignments anytime, anywhere as a result of the prevalence of Wi-Fi, smartphones and email, Sutton says. They also yearn for a healthy work-life balance.
“They grew up with this,” she says.
Seventy-seven percent of employees consider flexible work a major consideration in their job searches, according to Zenefits, which provides human resource software. And 30% have left a job because it didn’t provide flexible work options, a FlexJobs poll reveals.
Businesses are responding, largely because they have little choice in the hypercompetitive labor market, Yost says. Technology such as smartphones, cloud computing and work collaboration tools such as Slack also have paved the way. So has a work culture that often requires employees to answer emails late at night or on vacation. Companies can hardly ask workers to make such sacrifices without providing them more leeway to adjust their hours or location during the workday, Yost says.
Yet increased flexibility also boosts productivity, Yost says. Sixty percent of employees with workplace flexibility said they feel more productive and engaged and forty-five percent say it increases their ability to work effectively with their team, according to the Flex + Strategy survey.
Why? The ability to shift hours to avoid rush-hour traffic, for example, increases efficiency. Some people are more productive late at night than mid-morning. And employees granted flexible hours are more loyal and motivated.
“When you give people flexibility, they will give you more,” Yost says.
Last year, Sara Martlage, 31, left a sales job at a freight company where she felt chained to a desk for a similar role at Scottsdale, Arizona-based Trainual, which provides employee training software, largely because the firm lets her adjust her schedule. While the official hours are 8 to 5, Martlage can come in later to attend a workout or yoga class, run errands midday and work from home as much as half the time.
“It’s empowering to have authority over your schedule,” she says. “It makes me want to work harder, be available to take calls and answer email some nights and weekends to go above and beyond to keep my work integrity intact with the rest of my teammates.”
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Flex hours as a recruitment tool
Chris Ronzio, CEO of Trainual, says he adopted flexible hours about two years ago, chiefly to attract workers. Four recent hires, he says, accepted job offers because of the policy. And it has freed him from keeping a detailed ledger of employees’ time.
“We’re putting more trust into our team, and measuring them more by the results they produce than by the hours they log,” Ronzio says. The 19-employee firm has begun tracking monthly and quarterly sales figures more closely to ensure workers are meeting targets.
Other companies have hit some bumps along the way. GoBrandgo, a St. Louis marketing company, began letting employees set their own hours and work from anywhere about 10 years ago, says partner Brandon Dempsey. At first, he said, it bred resentment because each division had a different standard for flexible hours and no way to know when co-workers weren’t available.
Several years ago, he says, the company started an online calendar that employees fill out at the start of the week, letting colleagues know when they’re working and when they’re out, as well as project management software that tracks the status of every job. Employees must be available for client meetings every two weeks and work more closely in teams so they can answer a client’s question if a co-worker is out.
“Everybody knows the rules of the game now,” Dempsey says.
Staffers, he says, are more productive, in part because they can clock hours best suited to their circadian rhythms and not think about home while they’re at work, and vice versa. “Be present wherever you are,” he says.
Nicole Turner, 33, the creative director, routinely has put in five or six hours during the day at the office and then toiled at home from 7 PM to as late as 2 a.m.
“I’m more creative late at night,” she says.
Now that she has a 2-year-old son, her hours are more normal, though she still sometimes takes off part of the day to care for him and makes up the time at night.
“No one’s looking over me and micromanaging me.”
RED Group, a New Orleans-based maker of industrial control systems, began allowing somewhat variable schedules several years ago, and last month shifted to total flexibility, says company President Kyle Remont. Making the change possible were benchmarks for the cost and time of each project and software that shows precisely the percentage completed at any moment, as well as a video chat app.
“The biggest positive is employee morale,” Remont says.