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Flextime for hourly workers: How flexible are you?

Karen McAndrew, Kendall Hoechst, Editors
Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C., Burlington

by Karen McAndrew

Work-life balance is a topic much on the minds (and tongues) of employees these days, and how employees’ concerns about balancing their personal and professional lives affect business operations is correspondingly on the minds of HR professionals and senior managers. Flexibility in scheduling (i.e., “flextime”) is a tool that, when used creatively and managed well, can convey that you recognize your employees have lives and competing demands on their time outside the workplace. How you implement flextime in your workplace will determine whether it’s successful—resulting in a happier, more productive workforce with a high retention rate—or not—leading to grumbling, resentment, and high turnover.

Legislation as a starting—but not stopping—point

Vermont has certainly been at the forefront in terms of family-friendly employment laws, enacting protections for employees that include:

  • Parental and family leave that’s more widely applicable than the federal corollary (the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA);
  • Short-term family leave to attend a child’s school activities or take a parent, child, or spouse to routine medical and other professional appointments;
  • Limited paid sick leave;
  • Town meeting leave;
  • Workplace accommodations for nursing mothers; and
  • Employer obligations to consider in good faith employees’ requests for flextime.

Paid maternity leave has also been under consideration by our legislature, although it hasn’t yet been adopted.

Those legislative enactments haven’t always been welcomed by employers—particularly small employers, which are so ubiquitous in Vermont—because they can be seen as impositions on productivity and the bottom line. But instead of viewing family-friendly legislation and flextime as an impediment to management’s objectives, some employers are beginning to think that there’s a more positive way to think about accommodations, particularly when they’re used creatively for hourly and “blue-collar” workers, who may be the most negatively affected by rigid workplace schedules.

Companies, both big and small, have come to realize that flexibility in accommodating employees’ scheduling needs doesn’t just benefit employees. It may prove beneficial in building a stronger and more loyal workforce, which in turn can boost productivity and reduce turnover, with all its related costs. It’s worth thinking about.

Social change means blue-collar work has changed

When many of us hear the term “blue-collar workers,” we conjure images of men (yes, men) wearing overalls and carrying metal lunch pails as they pour out of the factory gate at the sound of the shift-change whistle. And then, if we’re old enough, we picture those men going home to wives in dresses and heels, putting a family-style meal on the table as two or three young children grab their chairs. The men punch the time clock day after day, while the women stay home to manage the family. But that’s a nearly nonexistent profile these days.

Of course, as we hear almost daily from politicians of all stripes, many of those factory jobs have been usurped by robots or moved out of the country. At any rate, a lot of the jobs that remain wouldn’t be recognizable to those guys in overalls. And chances are, the average hourly worker’s family life is even less like it used to be.

Today’s workers (both men and women) are just as likely to be carrying the baby’s lunch as they detour to the day care on their way to work in the morning after discussing with their spouse or partner which one of them will leave work in a rush at the end of the day to pick up not just the baby but the groceries and the mail, and then maybe take an older child to soccer practice before heading home to put a hastily assembled meal together. Moreover, a large percentage of workers are without a spouse or partner and must do all those things single-handedly at the beginning and the end of the day.

Managing time off by minimizing it

If wages had risen as rapidly as family life has changed, the pressures on blue-collar workers might not be so severe. But in this long stretch of relatively flatlined wages, having to take a half day of compensatory time off (CTO) to meet the cable installer or cover a delayed school opening or address some other situation not covered by short-term family leave can mean that CTO is eaten up before the summer. That may mean the employee has to use unpaid leave for all or a portion of a planned summer vacation with her family, which cuts further into their already stretched budget.

If you’ve long had a rule requiring CTO to be used in half-day or larger segments, it may be worthwhile to consider whether that’s really necessary. Is your only basis for the requirement the perceived inconvenience of scheduling or accounting for workers’ CTO in smaller blocks? Perhaps there’s a software program that would help you manage a more flexible system without enormous disruption to payroll processing. And you might find the cost offset by what you gain when employees take less unpaid (and often unplanned) time off.

Allowing employees to take time off in one- or two hour segments might not only be a very welcome benefit for them but may also mean that they spend more time on the job, benefiting the company as well.

What about flextime?

The irony in many workplaces is that salaried workers, who may be far less financially stressed than hourly workers, are generally afforded a great deal more flexibility in terms of work hours and schedules than the time-clock-punching hourly workforce. If rigid fixed hours are just a historical legacy, rethinking ways in which you might accommodate more flexibility for your hourly workers could do a lot to foster your reputation as a family-friendly place to work.

Consider whether it’s really necessary to have every hourly worker show up and depart at the same time. Might you actually increase productivity (and still have adequate coverage during the busiest time of the day) if you allow some workers to arrive an hour or two before the normal start time and leave an hour or two before the closing bell, and others to do the reverse? Chances are, some of your salaried workers are coming in early or staying late, so the relatively insignificant impact that offering scheduling flexibility might have on your overall operations would be minimal. But the corresponding benefit to your hourly workers who could be home in time to meet the school bus might be game-changing. Conversely, a retail or food-service operation in a downtown location might consider opening at the regular time with only part of the staff, but having everyone on board over the busy noon hour, and then decreasing staff as business begins to wind down in the afternoon.

Flexible scheduling might at first glance sound like a manageable concept in a small operation at which individual jobs are less compartmentalized, employees have to cover whatever needs to be done (and cover for each other during unexpected absences and vacations), and shifts aren’t rigidly structured. But we’ve been reading more and more about larger, traditionally shift-based workplaces embracing (or at least accepting) the idea that their business model might be dated.

Hospitals and other healthcare organizations in particular have faced chronic nursing shortages in recent decades, and many have adapted by offering nurses an alternative to the regular 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., or 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shifts on the same days (or nights) each week. Nurses now may work four days on and two days off, three days on and one day off, or any other combination that allows their employer to cover patient care but accommodates their own individual needs.

Other large employers are headed in the same direction. The Container Store, a large national retailer of home storage and organizing solutions, has held onto its long-standing place on the Fortune 100 list of Best Places to Work by promoting its “employee-first” culture not just in theory but in practice. Central to preserving that culture is a major investment in training both supervisors and employees, not just in the mechanics of their jobs, but also in the importance of communicating with one another about all aspects of their work, including work schedules.

The company hires many part-time employees for a variety of positions and works with them to accommodate their scheduling needs, which may change over time. For example, a student who works part-time may be able to work mornings and one afternoon during one semester, but she may be available to work weekday afternoons and one weekend day during the next semester. She knows that she can approach her supervisor about changing her schedule without trepidation, and the supervisor knows that she can retain a reliable employee by adjusting the schedule to fit the employee’s needs. The benefits of retaining already-trained (and appreciative) employees have proven to far outweigh the costs of constantly recruiting and training new employees.

Consistency and communication are essential

Flextime may sound like an employee-friendly idea, but when “flexibility”—i.e., unpredictability—is imposed from the top down, it can translate to instability or uncertainty for employees, particularly for blue collar workers who live close enough to the edge financially that predictability is highly valued. For example, if schedules are subject to change, especially at the last minute, the impact on workers with childcare obligations may be severe. Or if shifts are subject to a bidding process with relatively short notice about the availability of extra shifts, workers with outside obligations may be precluded from competing for the extra time.

Advertising jobs with the assurance that extra hours are often available or telling current employees that they have the opportunity to earn more by taking extra shifts may prove to be an empty promise if management doesn’t provide sufficient notice of those opportunities, or if the message is conveyed, however subtly, that declining the opportunity to work extra shifts is an impediment to advancement.

Bottom line: Employee retention is its own profit center Exempt employees, by definition, have some schedule flexibility built into their jobs.

Exempt staff can often manage their own hours, provided they get the job done and are present and available on-site as required. Working remotely and telecommuting is no longer a novelty for exempt employees. Most blue-collar workers don’t have those options, however.

That disparity can be dispiriting to hourly workers, who have just as many outside obligations and just as much need for work-life balance as their exempt coworkers, but far fewer options for maintaining that balance and managing those obligations. The more management can do to foster communication that leads to creative, thoughtful workarounds to those outside pressures, the more likely it is that hourly workers’ productivity, satisfaction, and loyalty will increase and employee turnover will decline.

The author can be reached at or 802-864-5751.