Flexible Work Works, Even for Hourly Employees

Not so long ago vWorker.com was called Rent-a-Coder. The name change created a bit of a hubbub. It seems some of the pros who offer their skills through the service don’t like being called “workers.” But not one of them, I’ll wager, is offended when they’re referred to as a “human resource.”

Fortunately, although many companies still have HR departments, business owners and managers are waking up to the fact that people aren’t consumable or disposable resources.

Smart companies are finding ways to help their people create a better work-life fit through flexible work arrangements. Company directors aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their pinstriped hearts. Study after study has shown that happy employees are more engaged and more productive, and that translates into more satisfied customers and a healthier bottom line.

Workplace flexibility – changing how, when, and where work is done – is one way to help make people happier. But it has long been considered a perk, and only for the upper echelons. What about hourly workers? Their needs are no different than those of senior managers. Wouldn’t flexibility for them create the same beneficial outcomes?

A recent study looked at the flexibility options offered by companies such as Marriott International, Inc., Proctor and Gamble, Bright Horizons and PNC Financial. The research showed that flexibility for low-wage, hourly and non-exempt people is effective in a variety of business environments – from hospitality to financial services, and from child care to consumer products.

Two Reasons Flexibility is Good for Business

1. Flexibility is an effective way to recruit and retain talent.

There is a shortage of qualified early childhood teachers. But flexible work options, used as a talent management strategy, allowed Bright Horizons Family Solutions to recruit and retain people who are committed to what they do. And by offering a broad choice of work schedules, they’re able to tap into a wider labor pool.

Flexible schedules and innovative time-off policies allowed PNC Financial to become an employer of choice in a competitive labor market among millennial workers.

Customer service and sales jobs typically suffer high turnover. But Marriott found flexibility was an effective way to hold on to their high-performing employees. Flexibility helped the company respond to the realities of the their employee’s lives – raising a family, going back to school, recovering from illness, or having to provide family care.

Businesses, such as Proctor and Gamble, need to operate 24/7. The part-time positions, flextime, and compressed work schedules they offer allow them to successfully match their operational needs with the needs of their people.


2. Flexibility helps control costs and boost productivity.

I listened recently to the owner of Zazie, a San Francisco restaurant, talk about how she lets her staff schedule themselves – heresy in the hospitality world. She also said she offers a full suite of benefits for her part-time staff, an equally radical practice. But while that puts her labor costs at 48 percent of revenue, her bottom line was higher than her peers’. What’s more, she said she hadn’t hired new kitchen staff in more than seven years.

For other businesses, flexibility allows them to control personnel costs, especially overtime costs – a win-win for company and workers.

But best of all, many companies have documented productivity gains, especially by offering telework as a flexibility strategy. Best Buy, British Telecom, and Dow Chemical have documented that their teleworkers are 35 to 40 percent more productive. JDEdwards teleworkers are 20 to 25 percent more productive than their office counterparts. American Express teleworkers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts. Compaq increased productivity 15 to 45 percent when they initiated a telework program.


How to Implement a Flexible Work Strategy for Hourly Employees

1. Use a team-based approach.

You have to establish clear guidelines and performance expectations, but then you can build flexibility into staffing models and cross-train team members, so they can help each other. Almost everyone responds to the opportunity for self-determination, and most respond to shared responsibility.


2. Involve work teams in the design of the flexibility program.

When people have an opportunity to solve their own problems, they become committed to business goals and take ownership of a process and results.


3. Give people choice and control over their hours.

Giving people control over their work hours has the highest impact of any flexible option. If you can find ways to allow workers to manage shift trades, make up time in the same pay period, or take vacation and sick time off in small chunks, you’ll reap the reward. Don’t know how? Ask them! (See No. 2)


4. Offer several flexible options.

The more options you offer and the easier they are to use, the more engaged, productive, and loyal your people will be. And because a sense of self-determination lowers stress, absenteeism will go down, too. Seventy-eight percent of employees who call in sick aren’t – they’re dealing with family issues, personal needs, and taking “mental health” breaks to fight stress.


5. Recognize there’s no “one size fits all” solution.

Flexibility “fit” is important. If you can offer a variety of options (see No. 4, above), and create a culture of support for the unique needs of individuals and their jobs, you’ll find your flexibility programs fit better.


6. Managers are key to your success and communication is pivotal.

Managers are your communications path to employees about the options available, and managers approve flexibility arrangements. If they haven’t been trained to understand the benefits, and if you don’t make them accountable for the success of your flexibility program, it won’t work. Implementation of a flexibility strategy is no different than implementation of any other business strategy.


7. You need clear policies and consistent application.

Fair and consistent application of flexibility policies is crucial to success. Transparent evaluation of flexibility requests and clear performance expectations provide the framework that managers and others need to make flexibility work.


8. Technology is your friend.

Flexible work, in many ways, is possible only because technology makes it so. E-mail, instant messaging, online schedules and calendars, and other modern tools can make flexible work work. Availability, schedules, and changing requirements can all be communicated to keep work groups connected regardless of the time or day.

Alpine Access, a call center with more than 2,000 home-based employees offers scheduling in 20- minute increments. That gives their people incredible flexibility, but it also means that in an emergency – created by business or nature – their entire workforce can, and do, respond in minutes.


9. Flexibility applies to careers, too.

Our research shows that companies could stop the brain drain created as baby-boomers retire by giving them the flexibility to work on their schedule or from home. More than 80 percent of boomers say they’d continue to work if they could do it on their terms. Using flexibility to recruit, develop, and retain top performers can give you an edge over less visionary competitors.


What This Means for You

As an employer, flexibility offers a powerful tool for business success. A flexible work culture‚ particularly one that offers a variety of formal flexibility programs, leads to better recruitment and retention of talent, increased engagement and productivity, lower levels of stress and burnout, and better customer service – all of which produce better financial results.


First Published on American Express Open Forum on March 3, 2011