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Work Redefined

Flexible Arrangements Are Gaining Attention, Acceptance
Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris says there is mounting evidence that flexible work schedules lead to greater productivity from those happy to be in such situations.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, most business owners and managers today would say that the death of the traditional five-day workweek has been greatly exaggerated. That being said, the so-called flexible work arrangement, of FWA, seems to gaining more acceptance as it garners headlines and attention from the academic community. Some of that study is inconclusive, but much of it suggests that such flexibility yields happier, more productive employees, while helping companies attract and retain top talent.

Bill Ferris says the acronym FWA hasn’t yet worked its way into the mainstream at most companies or business-related organizations, but it’s probably only a matter of time before it does.

It stands for ‘flexible work arrangement,’ said Ferris, a professor of Management at Western New England College who has studied the subject extensively, and as that name suggests, it connotes work schedules or conditions that are, well, flexible, as opposed to inflexible, which is the word that ruled in corporate America for decades. It’s a term that now covers everything from telecommuting to variable scheduling to compressed workweeks, he explained, and although it is hardly a recent phenomenon — progressive companies have been employing the concept, if not exactly the acronym, for many years now — it is gaining more attention, and more headlines.

The state of Utah recently went to a four-day workweek, for example, while France abruptly and unceremoniously abandoned its experiment with that concept and went back to the five-day variety. Meanwhile, as gas prices soared above the $4 barrier there was much talk, and some action, among employers about compressing the workweek, offering more telecommuting opportunities, or both to help their workers save at the pump. And the airline JetBlue has been drawing considerable attention from the press, academia, and the business community for deploying an army of stay-at-home moms to handle its ticket-reservation work, and with apparent success.

“They just log in and log out according to specific hours, and all seems to work … JetBlue apparently has a much more responsive network than many its competitors,” said Alan Robinson, a professor of Management at UMass Amherst. He noted that the company’s workforce is also more diverse than many others, because it can hire women with young children, and the airline, like other companies, can free up — or not lease — tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of square feet of prime commercial real estate by having people work at home.

But in the end, flexible work arrangements shouldn’t be about, or all about, gas prices or real-estate costs, said Debra Palermino, vice president of Corporate Human Resources at MassMutual. Instead, flexibility with schedules is more about productivity, recruitment, and retention, she explained.

“These are the things that are driving what we do here,” she said, noting the financial services giant has been utilizing flexible work arrangements, if not exactly calling them that, for many years now in several different departments. “This is a matter of work design for us; it’s not a commuter-cost issue here. It concerns how we can do our work in the most efficient way and in the way that is most attractive to the kinds of employees we’re going to need to do that kind of work.

“We ultimately have a vision to have as much flexibility as the company can afford and can manage,” she continued, adding that this phenomenon includes arranging for a valued employee to stay with the company after relocating to Florida.

“He had been here many years, was a top performer and an excellent employee, and we just didn’t want to lose him,” Palermino explained. “We worked out an arrangement whereby he could continue to work for us in Florida, and it it’s been quite successful.”

There are some issues and shortcomings to address when it comes to FWAs — not everyone can work at home, most companies need to staff the office and the phones five days a week, not four, and the FedEx bills can get excessive with many employees working remotely. Meanwhile, for those who can and do work at home, for example, there are matters of isolation and socialization (or lack thereof) to contend with. And there is always the matter of productivity to measure and re-measure, as well as lingering skepticism among many employers.

Meredith Wise, executive director of the Employers Association of the NorthEast, told BusinessWest that soaring gas prices — which have been retreating but always threaten to skyrocket again — have prompted some of her agency’s members to visit or revisit the subject of flexible work arrangements, and especially the four-day workweek.

Some are hesitant, she explained, because of studies and anecdotal evidence indicating that productivity declines when people work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, and additional concern about rising health care claims from such arrangements as minds and bodies tire with a longer day.

“For many businesses, there are too many challenges to overcome and too many questions with regard to a four-day or four-and-a-half-day workweek,” she explained, noting that this sentiment seems to apply to other types of flexibility with regard to work, especially among smaller companies.

But Ferris says there is gathering evidence that with such flexibility comes generally happier employers and improved productivity. So much evidence, in fact, that he believes the traditional five-day workweek is, or will soon be, obsolete.

“It’s dead … it’s gone,” he said, noting, for starters, that people in many professions work, or are on call, literally or figuratively, almost 24/7. Meanwhile, technology enables people to work when and often where they want, and progressive companies must recognize and take full advantage of this phenomenon is they want to compete.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at the concept of work, the increasing prevalence of FWAs, and what it all means for companies and their employees.

Hour Town

Ferris told BusinessWest that the concept of the flexible work arrangement, like distance learning and its potential and limitations, has become the subject of considerable study, debate, and conjecture within academia — and Corporate America, as well — and he’s one of those involved in such activity … sort of.

Some of his current students are involved in such study, he said, noting that one, a graduate student, is conducting what’s known as evidence-based management research to test her hypothesis that telecommuting workers who want to telecommute (that’s an important distinction) are more productive than workers who toil in the corporate office.

“She believes that’s what she’ll find, and there’s reason for her to think she’s right,” said Ferris, who told BusinessWest that many of his current and former students, ages 21 to 30 or so, are working increasingly in flexible work arrangements, giving him a test group, if you will, to monitor and measure.

“They’re in all kinds of different businesses,” he said of his charges. “They’re working at home, and their companies are looking for ways to have more of their people working at home.”

Study results, not to mention anecdotal evidence, are varied, said Ferris, but some trends are emerging, with many of them pointing toward FLAs being beneficial to companies and employees alike.

“What has been discovered, by and large, is that people who want to be on flexible work arrangements are happy about it, and typically produce better or as well as people who are not,” he said. “People even report that they’re sick less and call in sick less, because they’re already home doing their work. They put in more hours per week, typically, than people who go to work.

“They’re healthier, they work more, and they bill more hours,” he continued, noting that that this healthier state results from not being around sick people at work. And they’re more productive, he conjectured, because they’re not interrupted or sitting in meetings all day that accomplish little if anything.

Robinson told BusinessWest that, from his view, most of the studies on this matter are in progress, and that he relies mostly on anecdotal evidence — or his own experiences — when weighing the matter of flexible work arrangements.

“I’m much more productive at home, and part of the reason for that is that you can’t hang a do-not-disturb sign on your office door for three hours,” he said. “There are studies that show that every time you’re distracted, it takes you 15 minutes to get back to you where you were.”

For these reasons and others, he said, it makes sense for companies to permit telecommuting when and if the technology and the circumstances permit.

But while the academic community continues to study the various aspects of the flexible arrangements, work — as it is now defined or carried out — goes on in the real laboratory, the workplace.

Remote Possibilities

This includes corporations like Mass-Mutual, where flexibility has been part of the equation for many years now, said Angela Derouin, a human resources business partner at the company. She noted that, while some departments can’t really offer such arrangements — security and call-center operations, for example — most can and do, with the extent of the programs typically determined by the manager in question.

Derouin estimated that roughly 400 of the company’s 5,000-odd employees have some form of flexible work arrangement (matching industry averages), and the number is rising, due to both the popularity of such programs and the company’s degree of satisfaction with what it has seen and heard.

“We hope that in certain areas where we know the work can be done at home and we can accelerate the technology support it, we can put more people to work in their home,” she said, referring to just one piece of the efforts with regard to FWAs.

Indeed, flexibility includes telecommuting locally; working in Florida, as that one producer does, or other states; compressed schedules; and flexible schedules — people coming in later and leaving later, for example. “I come in really early, but the person next to me arrives at 9,” she explained.

Generally, said Derouin, people working in such arrangements are as productive or more productive than they might be in a traditional work arrangement. Why? Because they’re happy to have that flexibility and want to keep it.

“We find that when people are successful while working at home and want that arrangement to continue because they like it and it benefits them in many ways, they’re wiling to work hard and make sure they’re available on the phone or via E-mail. They work very hard to make the arrangement successful so they can keep it.

“We want everyone to be productive, whether they’re working here or working remotely,” she continued. “But we see those in flexible arrangements doing whatever they can to make it work, because their ability to work in that way is dependent on business needs, and it’s at the discretion of the company.”

Ferris said this trend is prevalent elsewhere; those granted flexible work arrangements view them as a priviledge, not a right or something they can take for granted. “So they put in the effort to maintain that privilege.”

Beyond productivity and morale issues, however, another benefit to FWAs is the ability to recruit and retain employees — most of whom work in and around Springfield, but some others don’t.

“We have employees spread out across the country, and it has worked out very well,” said Palermino, adding that this ability to have people work in Florida, California, and even overseas will prove valuable as companies across all sectors face the challenge of finding enough qualified workers in the years and decades ahead.

But as FWAs become more popular, there are issues and challenges that companies must contend with, said said Derouin, who cited isolation as one possible problem. She said the term gaining acceptance in corporate America is ‘social distancing.’

“Those companies that have done it in a big way are dealing with this now,” she explained. “They’re asking themselves, ‘how do you maintain espirit de corps?’ and ‘how do you maintain your sense of an entity if you’re so isolated?’ Companies are responding by forming agreements where there are certain times in a week or month when people have to come in.”

Overall, experts say that an array of potential problems and issues — from isolation to distractions from young children — can be overcome (see related story, page 28).

As for skeptical managers, Palermino acknowledged that there are some gray areas when it comes to productivity within some departments — meaning that it’s not all numbers on a balance sheet — which makes it challenging to gauge whether people are more or less successful in a flexible work arrangement. But in most cases, performance is outcome-based, giving most managers a fairly clearly read on whether something is working or not.

Meanwhile, not everyone desires flexible work arrangements, said Ferris, noting that many individuals want and need interaction with others in the workplace.

That’s why the traditional five-day workweek won’t disappear from the landscape any time soon, he noted, adding, however, that flexible work models are becoming more prevalent — where and when they are applicable.

Time Passages

Ferris told BusinessWest that, in time, and probably not much of it, the term ‘telecommuting’ will eventually fade from the business lexicon, as will ‘flex time’ and other phrases that seem destined to replaced by FWA or something like it.

“That’s because ‘flexible work arrangement’ typically means you spend some time in the office and some time out of the office doing office work, so it covers all those terms,” he explained, adding quickly that the issue for business owners and managers certainly isn’t terminology.

Instead, it’s recognizing that, in many respects and in a great many professions, work is changing, and the old rules — which add up to inflexibility — no longer apply.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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