Balancing Work/Life by the Hour

More organizations are finding that flexible work arrangements for hourly employees can yield positive results for the bottom line and beyond.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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Although they may not realize it, Randy Hines' two young children have enjoyed a unique, employer-provided benefit around 2:40 p.m. every school day: walking home from the bus stop with Dad.

At that appointed time, Hines, a mechanic in the maintenance department at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, Ky., waits on the neighborhood corner where the school bus drops off his kids, ages 8 and 10, so he can escort them home and supervise them himself, rather than pay for expensive after-school childcare accommodations until he or his wife can get out of work to retrieve them.

"I feel taken care of," says Hines, "because my employer allows me to do this."

Indeed, Hines is able to be at that bus stop every school day because the University of Kentucky is one of a number of employers beginning to recognize that flexible work arrangements aren't just for exempt employees anymore.

"Flexible work arrangements allow the organization to accommodate the many needs of a diverse workforce," including employees -- like Hines -- who punch a clock, says Kim Wilson, associate vice president of human resources at the University of Kentucky, which employs about 5,400 hourly full-time workers.

After implementing a "flex" approach organization-wide in 2008, an internal study conducted a year later found that about 54 percent of supervisors were already implementing such arrangements with their workers, Wilson says, adding that an updated survey finds "the desire for flexibility [among hourly workers] continues to grow."

And while survey information specific to hourly workers is not readily available, a recent poll of 637 exempt and nonexempt workers by Madison, N.J.-based Work+Life Fit Inc. shows 76 percent of respondents saying their use of work/life flexibility stayed the same during the recent economic downturn and another 11 percent saying they increased their use.

While a typical shift for Hines' work group begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m., he and his supervisor agreed on a revised schedule that allows Hines to come in at 6 a.m. and clock out at 2:30 p.m.

"So far, my wife [who also is an hourly worker] and I have saved about $400 a month in childcare that we didn't have to pay for," he says. "She can still get her hours in and, ultimately, I get more time with my children because of [the arrangement]."

And Jennifer Swanberg, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky as well as the executive director of its Institute for Workplace Innovation, says organizations are leaving both money and good will on the table if they don't address the work/life needs of their hourly workers.

"Finding inventive scheduling solutions for low-wage hourly workers and their employers has big implications for the health, well-being and economic security of these individuals and their families, and for workplace stability in the businesses that employ them," Swanberg says.

Works Both Ways

To get his new schedule approved a year ago, Hines followed HR's established protocol, set forth in the university's work/life program.

Already fortunate to have the opportunity to work unique hours that fit his family's unique rhythms, he doubly benefitted from working under a supervisor specially seasoned to shepherd him through the process.

Maintenance Supervisor Jim Ryder is a founding member of the university's work/life advisory council and a member of the committee that designed the school's flexible-work-arrangement guidelines. He was also one of the first supervisors within the university system to implement flex scheduling among his staff.

Before the university system solidified its FWA process, Ryder says, it had more of an ad-hoc feel to it.

"It was just more of a handshake deal back then," he says. "Now, it's much more institutionalized and on a more formal basis, in order to open it up to employee input so they have a clear path when they have a need to change their schedule."

He says the committee's goal was to create a policy that is "flexible from two different points of view: the employee's and [his or her] manager's."

Ultimately, the committee built a process that includes sample flexibility guidelines, the university's FWA guidelines and sample letters of understanding for both the employee and employer, all of which are available for any employee to view via the HR department's web portal. (See sidebar.)

Wilson says the work/life department -- which has its own director -- also conducts some 20 consultations per month with both staff and supervisors to provide the necessary support to implement an agreeable work schedule.

"Oftentimes, they just don't know how to go about doing it or negotiating the arrangement," she says. "Having someone who can help with that is very important."

And when those agreements are being hammered out, Wilson says, a light touch from HR usually works best.

"We try to not be too prescriptive and try to accommodate the individual's needs as much as we can," she says. "It's impossible to come up with one plan to fit everyone, thanks to our diverse population."

Swanberg, who also co-authored the recent Flexible Workplace Solutions for Low-Wage Hourly Workers: A Framework for a National Conversation -- along with Liz Watson of the Workplace Flexibility 2010 initiative at Georgetown Law School -- says programs such as the university's are important for hourly workers because they typically face a triple whammy when it comes to how their work schedules may affect their lives.

"Low-wage hourly workers, whether they are employed in jobs requiring standard or non-standard hours, face three forms of scheduling challenges: rigidity, unpredictability and instability," she says, citing recent research that found nearly half of such workers have "little to no" control over their schedule, nearly one-third of workers are required to work overtime and nearly one-quarter experience a reduction of work hours when work is slow.

For his part, Hines says, the arrangement allows him to get his work done in a more efficient manner.

"There are daily rounds that I do five days a week, and getting here early before the hospital gets busy allows me to get through it quickly," he says, "and it's nice to have that done early."

He also says it's "definitely" helped build a better relationship with his supervisor. "It's worked out great both ways," he says.

Ryder, who says about 10 percent of his 200-person maintenance workforce is on some sort of flex arrangement, wholeheartedly agrees.

"You can see it in the way [our workers] walk around," he says. "They appreciate being cared for the way we care for them."

Unavoidable Costs?

For many businesses that rely heavily on hourly workers -- particularly those in the retail sector -- high turnover and absenteeism rates are the norm, with most of the blame being placed on the shoulders of the workers, says Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.

But flexible scheduling could offer employers a way to alleviate high turnover among low-wage workers, which a joint study by Swanberg and Boston College's Center for Work and Family recently placed at up to 60 percent.

"There is a lack of fit between the workplace and the workforce in hourly jobs that's costing employers a lot of money and employees a lot of pain," she says.

"And there are a tremendous number of things that employers can do to improve the fit, but they're just not doing [them] because employers assume that the high level of turnover is unavoidable."

Williams, who is also a distinguished professor of law at UC Hastings as well as the co-author of Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs: An Underutilized Cost-Cutting Strategy in a Globalized World with Penelope Huang, says studies have shown turnover rates among hourly workers can often be "outlandishly high" and can fluctuate between 80 percent and 500 percent in sectors such as retail.

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"The [hourly] workforce just doesn't fit with schedules designed in ways that are erratic, unstable and, yet, at the same time, rigid," she says. "The problem is not worker irresponsibility, but workers' family responsibilities."

She advises HR leaders at organizations pondering a move toward greater flexibility for hourly workers to first evaluate their current scheduling practices before making a move toward what she calls "schedule equilibrium."

"The ultimate goal is to drive down front-end labor costs without driving back-end costs, such as high absenteeism and turnover rates," she says. 

With approximately 90,000 hourly workers -- or 87 percent of its workforce -- Bethesda, Md.-based hotelier Marriott International Inc. has prided itself on caring for hourly workers since its founding by J. Willard Marriott, says David Rodriguez, Marriott's executive vice president of global HR.

"His philosophy was that you can't expect people to be at their best at work unless they are feeling their best," he says, "so we try to be as responsive as possible to the fact that people do have lives outside of work."

As further proof of Marriott's legacy, the hotel chain was recently included on Working Mother magazine's "2011 List of Best Companies for Hourly Workers."

Rodriguez says the company offers a variety of flexibility options for hourly employees, including a cross-training program that allows workers in one unit, such as housecleaning, to get trained in a different work unit -- for example, catering -- that will allow them to have more opportunities to work when they are available.

He adds that online scheduling, compressed workweeks, shift swapping and work-at-home positions also have helped the company lower a high turnover rate.

"In our Omaha, Neb., reservation center, turnover was about 150 percent," he says. "But even after accounting for the recession, by implementing flexibility options, we cut turnover down to 50 percent."

He adds that, in a recent survey of hourly workers, three-quarters of those with access to flexibility programs say flexibility is "a huge driver" of their intention to stay at Marriott.

"It can seem like a small thing, but it can seem huge to a family when things change and they need to rearrange their work schedule," Rodriguez says. "They really appreciate it."

Educate, Support and Coach

But getting hourly workers to that appreciative state involves a coordinated effort by supervisors and HR, says Jeff Wilson, the market vice president of HR for the healthcare-client sector at Sodexo, a food- and facilities-management provider based in Gaithersburg, Md.

And chief among those efforts is listening, he says.

"Flexibility comes in many different forms, but the culture of an open-door policy and the willingness to listen, rather than just sticking to the schedule, is the key," he says.

That willingness to listen likely helped Sodexo join Marriott on Working Mother's list of top companies for hourly workers, also aided by offering generous tuition aid, and educational and developmental opportunities to its hourly workers.

With more than 80,000 hourly workers in its healthcare-client segment, the company is in a "trickle-down" process of expanding its formalized flex programs for managers to soon include hourly workers.

When they do roll out in the near future, HR's role will be to "educate, support and coach" supervisors who are handling such requests, he says.

"But if you really want it to work ... the bosses involved should be the final decision makers on whether it makes good business sense for that unit," he says.

UC Hastings' Williams cautions employers that flexibility programs are a must-have across the board, because employers will almost always lose when a worker is faced with a choice between caring for a child and completing a work shift.

"They are not going to be arrested for child neglect," she says. "They will just leave your job."


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