Moving Beyond The Fears – and the Falsehoods – of Flex Time

Whenever I talked to employees about flex time, they were always excited about the possibilities. They would think “I can work extra on Tuesdays so I can leave early on Wednesdays.” Or if they wanted a three-day weekend, they would think “Hey, I can work more hours Monday through Thursday and then get Friday off!” Exciting right?

Except it doesn’t always turn out that way. Managers think that they now have more flexibility too (and they should!). They still assume that you will be working at least 40 hours a week (or whatever was your hours expectation before). In fact, some of the HR pros I’ve talked to who’ve implemented flex time packages in their workplaces have retreated in as a little as a few months after implementing them.

That’s tough. It’s not only a morale-buster, it shows a lack of thought about the significant assumptions that we currently have about work.

Work as a thing you do, not a place you are

Flex time schemes are based on the assumption that you can work independent of location or that you have workload flexibility. That, in and of itself, is problematic.

For one thing, location does matter for many jobs. Take a retail position or one in manufacturing, for example. These positions require a real, physical presence in a single location during a fixed period of time.

Selling flex time to this group is disingenuous. What ends up happening is simply a scheduling scheme that companies probably should have been doing anyways. Building in flexibility, priority, and fairness into a scheduling process is good practice — but it isn’t workplace flexibility.

The workload question

If you have seasonal work periods, it may be easy to pick those off season times as flexible spaces. What happens during the busy seasons, though? For example, if you’re working for a typical tax accounting firm this time of year, you probably aren’t getting much time off but you still may need it.

So what is work flexibility for these employees? It is being flexible when you can. A policy like that would be a good practice anyway, but certainly not full out workplace flexibility. There are some that overcome this and give some true flexibility, but it isn’t the norm. At least not yet.

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Similarly, other jobs have times of the week or month that have little flexibility. And unless you are truly working on a project by project basis, there will probably be times when flexibility isn’t always a luxury.

Lack of creative thinking or reality?

Of course, advocates of ROWE have previously skewered me for not thinking about how these challenges could be reversed. They cite examples of companies that have overcome logistical adversity to make it happen.

I applaud the effort but some workplaces require some amount of inflexibility as a function, not simply through a desire to control employees and their schedule. If you operate a manufacturing facility that is up running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you’re going to have a lot of inflexibility. And many companies can’t afford to hire the extra heads to cover the sort of flexibility that these programs demand.

But past that, there is one more issue with flexibility that can’t be talked about enough.

The manager issue

The one thing that seems to be completely overlooked are managers. Let’s say you’re a company that is ripe for the sort of flexible scheduling that advocates dream of. How do you deal with issues like:

  • What if an employee works extra hard on delivering a project and wants to flex a day or two after? This has been a key complaint from employees I know in legitimate flex time situations. They say they work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week delivering a project, and when they get to the end of it, they want to take a couple days of downtime. Their manager often sees this as time off instead of being flexible. Employees don’t agree and it causes a major issue that isn’t always solved by saying “Make the manager give in.” Adding structure is often the solution to this issue.
  • Shouldn’t hours requirements go out the window completely? Some employees take the ROWE perspective and say it doesn’t matter what hours they work so long as they get work done. Easier said than done. Overcoming hundreds of years of measuring throughput by hours worked is more difficult than most think. How does a manager determine if they are overworking or underworking an employee? The simple thing about tracking hours is that it creates workload expectation. Added variability is the last thing some employees want or need in their work schedules.
  • Are results the only measuring stick? One would think that results are often not the measuring stick. Researchers often spend years without making significant progress on a major project. So much in research is variable that this shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is how many of them keep their job year after year with so little to account for. What’s important in research is mostly the process in which discovery and progress is made (eventually, following this process will end with results). In many cases, all kinds of non-results based factors play into fair evaluation of employee work.

Getting past fears and falsehoods

Of course, there are companies that believe many of the unfounded fears about flexible time. I don’t want to discount that either, but addressing both the fears of flex time haters and the falsehoods of flex time advocates is going to be key to implementing a program without a retreat later down the road. And believe me, you don’t want that.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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