Creating Flexible Work Policies: One Size Does NOT Fit All

At
Yale, each
department looks at
the institutional policy
and then fashions its
own system.

Susan AbramsonSusan Abramson

For its support for working parents and worklife policies including workplace flexibility, Yale University CT won recognition as one of the top 100 employers by Working Mother magazine in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The recognition was well deserved, noted Susan Abramson, manager of worklife and childcare programs there. When she came to Yale as the child care coordinatorin 1996, Yale had five affiliated child care centers.

Now in the division of diversity and inclusion, Abramson consults with departments and units all over campus, advising them how to successfully use flexible work arrangements to improve morale and productivity.

She explained the benefits and challenges of workplace flexibility at the College and University Work-Family-Life Association (CUWFA) conference in Toronto in June 2013.

Historically speaking

The history of flexible working arrangements dates back to the 1930s with the W. K. Kellogg Co.’s willingness to deviate from the standard schedules of eight hours a day, five days a week. The cereal company changed from three shifts of eight hours each to four shifts of six hours. Its experiment ended when President Franklin D. Roosevelt required companies to run at full capacity for war needs.

In 1945, author Albert Morton Persoff proposed giving all working Americans a paid sabbatical every seven years, to end unemployment and create a happier, more engaged workforce. His idea did not win universal acceptance.

Fast forward to 1972 when Hewlett Packard offered flexible working arrangements at its Waltham MA plant. West Germany coined the term “flex time” in 1978, establishing policies to balance work and family. The 1980s gas crisis produced experiments in telecommuting, but not everyone wanted to work from home.

Work-life in the academy

Many outsiders still assume that higher education faculty schedules are so flexible that they don’t need specific work-life policies. They ignore the stress inherent in the pre-tenure years and while raising young children. But insiders realize that faculty still have teaching schedules, meetings and deadlines and staff are still required to cover certain hours of service.

There are differences in duties and required face time among teaching, research and clinical faculty. Some chairs have different policies for each employee group.

Universities are often seen as silos. In the case of Yale with its 13,000 employees including 4,000 faculty, it acts as a large business composed of many smaller businesses. There are institutional policies but also departmental cultures that provide work-life flexibility on a case-bycase basis. Clerical and technical staff have unions.

The standard workweek at Yale is 37.5 hours, between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Some departments and units can do alternate schedules. The school has no policy on telecommuting.

By definition, the term “flexible” means there is no “one size fits all.” Each school or department adopts different guidelines, policies and schedules to meet its own needs.

“My mantra is 15 minutes at the beginning or end of the day can make a big impact,” said Abramson. She has worked from home every Wednesday for the past two years because her manager was willing to “walk the walk.”

At Yale, each department looks at the institutional policy and then fashions its own system. The school tries not to allow the HR unit to become a barrier. Managers are allowed to adopt different policies and guidelines. Employees can work the same schedule every day, work a compressed schedule or sign up for a totally flexible schedule that can change at any time.

The flexibility isn’t automatic. Employees have to earn their manager’s trust. Entry-level employees who have worked there for one year can apply. The case for flexible arrangements is different for faculty or managers than for lower-level staff.

How the process works

To help manage these various work arrangements, Yale developed a proposal process to support employees as they consider different flexible work arrangements.

A planning sheet asks how the arrangement would affect the employee’s co-workers, internal and external customers, and how the employee’s work would be measured under a flexible schedule.

When Abramson is called in to consult on employee requests, she interviews stakeholders, trying to understand the leadership in the department or unit. For example, the manager may be on board but not the dean.

When meeting with managers, she explains that a flexible workplace is a win-win-win situation, and offers them ways to set up flexible work arrangements. Options depend on how much contact an employee needs as well as how little direct supervision a manager is comfortable with.

• Can the employee be evaluated by the amount and quality of work produced, rather than time spent in the seat?

• Do employees have the resources they need to work from home? Who will provide them?

• What’s the impact on security if a building and its offices are open past 6 p.m.? Would employees need escorts? To reduce administrative anxiety, managers can conduct a pilot program to test the waters before fully committing.

Real world examples

As examples, Abramson explained the process of three of her consultations, from the initial request to the final recommendation and putting it in place.

At the Yale School of Medicine, a non-clinical department had 63 staff in eight units. In fall 2012, after an engagement survey uncovered low employee morale and a desire for flexibility, Abramson was called in.

She discovered that the top priority was work flexibility. The major problem was getting buy-in from the stakeholders. Part of the staff was unionized.

She held two focus groups: one with managers and the other with staff and clerical employees. She found that the managers were afraid of losing control. Some had had previous experience with employees who took advantage of the flexibility and didn’t do the work. Others were worried that flexibility really meant employees were “doing less.”

They also needed training on how to manage employees with flexible work arrangements. The employees were afraid to ask for flexibility for fear of losing their jobs. The department planned to conduct a pilot study over summer.

An academic department in the Yale Graduate School of Arts & Sciences had 35 staff of managers, clerical and technical workers; all worked from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The HR generalist tried to start a departmental policy, because some managers offered flexibility, while others didn’t.

With the Lead Administrator's impending retirement, they chose to delay considering a policy change until a new one arrives.

At one of Yale’s 22 libraries, Abramson was called to one that had 89 employees, including an outsourced security company. During the consultation, she discovered a lot of rigidity on the part of managers. Employees couldn’t have water on their desks. They all worked customer service hours. Managers docked people who were late to work.

The library’s policy on flexibility was that employees could apply for a change of schedule for one year. Many employees chose the fixed schedules. A policy document is now in the works.

Learning from best practices

Before setting up flexible work arrangements at your school, Abramson suggested these considerations:

When you begin the discussion, realize that you’re raising employee expectations. You must communicate the options to all employees.

Establish core hours that will work for the whole department, its clients and employees. Make sure these hours are covered so that the office remains fully responsive to students and key clients.

Creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking may be necessary when developing flexible work arrangements to meet departmental and organizational needs. Listen to what the employees want.

Flextime workers need to be sure everyone knows where they are when they’re working off-site. Before she began working from home, Abramson emailed all staff with her email address and home phone number.

Gather data using a pilot program of six weeks to three months. A "reason neutral" best practices ensures that managers make decisions based on work issues, not personalities.

During the post-pilot phase, give managers time to analyze the arrangement and revisit any issues.

Provide reasonable notice of at least 30 days when informing staff about changes. Get the department or unit’s HR generalist on board.

Communicate success stories through various media. Train managers on policies and offer training for employees so they know how the changes work. If done well, flexible workplace schedules can be a nocost way to boost employee morale, improve recruitment and increase retention. But one size does not fit all.

Contact:
Susan.abramson@yale.edu
203.432.8069


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2013, August). Creating Flexible Work Policies: One Size Does NOT Fit All. Women in Higher Education, 22(8), 1-2.

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