Alternative Work Schedules
Compressed work weeks save me about 500 miles per month of wear and tear on my car. It also allows me to take care of personal business, which is difficult to do during a normal work week.”
- Michael Dutton, CAMPO Employee, Austin
Alternative work schedules (also known as variable work hours) comprise three main strategies: flextime, compressed work weeks and staggered shifts.
Flextime—Employees work specified hours each week, but are given flexibility on when they arrive to work, take lunch and leave work.
Compressed work weeks—Employees work more hours than typical but work fewer days per week or pay period.
Staggered shifts—Employees arrive and depart work at different times in shifts. Shifts may be staggered anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours.
Reduces parking lot and entrance/exit congestion
Less employee stress/better productivity
Better employee morale/retention
Economical to provide
Can offer flexibility needed for other Commute Solutions
Staggered hours allow for more coverage because of extended workday
More flexibility for personal and work time
Can offer flexibility needed for other Commute Solutions
Often reduces commute time by avoiding rush hour traffic
Less traffic congestion during peak hours
Better air quality from reduced congestion
Developing policies and procedures
Diluting chances for ride sharing with different schedules
Making sure work duties are “covered” when needed
Monitoring employees who participate
Alternative work schedules are extremely popular with most workers. Employers have their work cut out for them, however, since the programs work best with established guidelines. Many employees are sensitive—and rightly so—about who works when and how much and with what supervision. So the more the employer gets down on paper and communicates to employees, the less chance for conflicts.
Managers also may fear alternative work arrangements, because they can complicate how the manager monitors employees, manages tasks and ensures coverage of work duties.
Chances are, however, that most employers already have programs and guidelines in place, since the diversity of the information age has led to a need for customized work schedules that don’t fit the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. profile. Additionally, manufacturing and production jobs have long experimented with staggered shifts and compressed work weeks to meet other goals and increase productivity.
So for the employer, the goal may be to simply ensure they are getting the most out of their alternative work schedule programs and that they are supporting other Commute Solutions options to the fullest.
So, where do I begin?
1. Form a Team
Most Commute Solutions strategies require input from various people or departments at an employer. But for alternative work arrangements, the input is crucial. A lengthy and complicated list of labor laws that vary from state to state make it important for the employer’s legal department or attorney to be involved and review policies before finalizing them.
Additionally, human resources staff will be implementing many of the changes, and therefore, should be involved from the beginning. They also have more expertise in developing personnel policies.
2. Decide Overall Objectives
The first step is to establish objectives for the alternative work schedule program. Is it intended to promote other Commute Solutions strategies like carpooling and vanpooling? Is the work site suffering from too many employees arriving and departing at the same time? Or are employees simply requesting more flexibility?
Once the employer establishes objectives, the team can begin to examine which strategies or combination of strategies will work best, and which job responsibilities are suitable for the programs.
3. Pick Strategies
All strategies have defining characteristics that the team should plan for and address.
The time that certain employees need to be present and working. For example, certain positions may require that the phones or reception areas are covered during specific hours. Or additional customer service personnel might be needed during peak hours.
The number of hours or amount of work that must be accomplished each day or week.
An employer’s hours of operation. Remember that extending work time to accommodate flexible schedules also can increase operating costs related to lighting, heating/cooling, security, etc. However, flexible schedules allow for longer coverage due to the staggered schedules.
The decision on which positions and individual employees will be able to participate, at what level of participation and whether the participation is the choice of the employee or management.
Making sure that employees follow schedules and/or work requirements. With different employees on different schedules, it may be hard to monitor who is doing what and if that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. Time cards, logs or other systems can be used. However, employee performance and monitoring tasks and productivity are often the best measures for accountability.
Additionally, flextime and compressed work weeks have their own defining attributes.
Flextime programs are based on the following structures and definitions:
Most employers require a core period, a time in which all employees must be present.
Employees are allowed to pick their starting time each day, and the departure time is simply based on when they have fulfilled the required amount of work hours. A typical gliding schedule would allow employees to arrive anywhere from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. each day, then leave from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Employees can pick their starting time each day, but that time is chosen for a mandatory period of time (perhaps six months or a year, coinciding with other changes in other benefit plans).
The ultimate in flexibility, employees can essentially work any hours they want within a 24-hour period. Additional hours in that period over their required work time often can be banked to shorten future workdays or weeks.
For systems that allow banking of hours, or if overtime is reached, credit hours can be given that allow for reduced work time in the future.
Compressed Work Weeks
Compressed schedules can be structured in a variety of ways, but they usually fall into the following two categories.
The 4/40 System
Employees work four 10-hour days and take the fifth day off.
The 9/80 System
Employees work eight nine-hour days and one eight-hour day with the tenth day off.
Another common structure among manufacturing companies is the 3/36, three 12-hour days with two days off either in between or following. (Four hours are given as a reward for working the long, extended days.)
Usually compressed work week participant days off are divided, with half taking Monday and half taking Friday, although any variation can be used to meet the needs of employers. However, employers should not feel that days off should be limited to Monday and Friday only.
4. Select Types of Participants
Once an employer understands which strategies will be beneficial and feasible, it is time to start defining which positions are suited for alternative work schedules and which positions might be eligible. The selection ultimately will help define who gets to participate in what type of program.
For example, a combination of flextime and compressed work weeks may work for an accounting department that handles ongoing payable and receivable functions. However, a call center with customer service representatives may only be able to work compressed work weeks with alternating days off for participating employees. Extended customer service hours would be a benefit of flextime that extends the working hours, although flextime might also deplete the number of needed representatives at certain times.
5. Develop Policies
Once the objectives are matched with the proper strategies, and the proper strategies with the job descriptions, the team can develop written policies. The policies may be detailed and rigid, or flexible to fit the needs of different departments or managers. The key is to have something in writing, because arbitrary or inconsistent policies lead to disputes.
When developing policies, be sure to cover the characteristics (work requirements, work hours, coverage, etc.) and the specific attributes for each type of strategy, as well as other typical considerations (See below).
6. Examine Other Considerations
Part-time vs. Full-time Work
How work requirements, hours and other characteristics may differ for part-time and full-time workers.
Policies for how holidays are handled need to be taken into consideration. Some government agencies have rules defining exactly what hours can be “missed” because of holidays, which may affect those who have extended work days.
Cross Training and Rotating Participants
Some employees that appear ineligible may be able to participate if the employer cross-trains co-workers to provide coverage. Different employees can rotate to help cover for needed duties.
Pilots and Trial Periods
The team can encourage managers who are unsure of starting alternative work schedules to try a pilot with a limited number of employees. Additionally, employees considering such programs may want to have a trial period of a couple weeks to see if the new schedule works for them and their manager.
Allowing for Special Considerations
Mandatory programs for compressed work weeks and staggered shifts can create problems for some employees who have schedules to accommodate for ridesharing, children, medical needs, relatives, etc. If the employee didn’t sign on with the employer under the arrangement, it may be unfair to impose it on them, and special consideration may be needed to allow them to continue their existing schedule.
7. Support Ride Share, Transit and Bicycling/Walking
Both flextime and compressed work weeks can offer benefits for promoting other Commute Solutions options. Flextime particularly helps transit and bicycling/walking, since a flexible schedule can accommodate additional time needed to get to work. Compressed schedules may let Commute Solutions participants run errands in their cars on their days off.
Flextime also can hinder carpooling and vanpooling. For example, an open or maxi flextime lets vanpoolers and carpoolers pick schedules that accommodate their pools. But a set flextime (core time) outside that schedule might not. If an employer sets a flextime schedule of starting from 6:30-8:30 a.m., that won’t help someone who wants to vanpool with a group from another area employer that arrives at 9 a.m.
Similarly, compressed work weeks also can create a problem for rideshare, since they extend the working hours. So a group of carpooling employees on a compressed 4/40 week may not leave until 6 p.m., leaving the worker without a compressed work week unable to meet that schedule.
The problems usually occur at larger companies when different managers set different requirements for who can participate in flextime and compressed work weeks and what the rules are for core hours or arrival/departure times.
The employer may consider a separate survey of department heads to gauge rules and procedures if they differ throughout the work site. At that point, the team can strategize on how to best coordinate different ride matching attempts and may even be able to standardize policies in some situations.
Finally, using alternative work arrangement perks as benefits can leverage Commute Solutions options. For example, if compressed work week participants are required to divide into two camps for days off (most likely Mondays and Fridays), Commute Solutions participants would get the first choice on which day to take off.
Cost / Savings
See the Cost Savings Calculator on this site to find out how much money employees can save with alternative work schedules (mainly reduced trips from compressed work weeks).
For the employer, compressed work weeks–if structured properly–also can result in significant savings from reduced parking needs.
The ability to vary start times or work the longer days of a compressed work week is a way of doing business at the Frank Russell Company, a financial services business based in Tacoma, Washington. The company relies on a mix of flextime, compressed work weeks and telework to extend coverage into earlier and later hours for clients, and to boost employee morale and satisfaction with the work environment.
Flextime helps because an earlier start or a longer day increases telephone communication with international staff. In addition, since Wall Street opens at 9 a.m. in New York, traders on the West Coast need to start by 6 a.m.
Another group, which provides desktop computer support, finds four 10-hour days make it easier to accomplish some tasks before or after employees need to use their computers. The large consulting department offers compressed workweeks to administrative staff. One administrative assistant, for example, works five eight-hour days one week and four 10-hour days the next to receive one day off every other week. She is part of a team of four administrative personnel who jointly support a work group of four executives.
Increasing the hours of coverage, plus the idea of cross-training and shared work, results in less overtime. The biggest benefit to Russell, however, is happier employees and low turnover. So long as coverage is adequate, staff can change days off from one pay period to the next.
In the end, management asks two questions when making decisions about work options requests: 1) Will it improve overall employee satisfaction or job performance? and 2) Will it hurt performance of duties in some way that is not acceptable or is not offset by other improvements?
Source: Washington State University Cooperative Extension Energy Program