Flexibility in the Workplace
Workers value control over own job schedules, personnel managers say
Mike McLean
Journal of Business

Employers who enable workers to have some say in shaping their work schedules are more likely to retain them, Spokane-area advocates of the "flexible workplace" concept say.  

Flexible work schedules enable employees to maintain a healthy balance between their work and family lives, help employers attract more qualified job applicants, and enhance a company's bottom line, they say.  

Janice Ashe, client services manager with Provisional Staffing Services, a Spokane company that recruits and places temporary and permanent professional workers, says she's seeing a growing number of clients that offer a flexible workplace.

"A number of offices offer telecommuting," Ashe says. "It's a great thing to tell a candidate for a position that there are options like that."

Other options for workplace flexibility include offering "flextime" schedules outside of the normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. range, personal time for family matters, the opportunity to work part time, and a compressed work week, such as four 10-hour shifts.

Ashe says some clients also are offering the option of hiring two part-time workers to fill one full-time position, often known as job sharing.

Employers that promote workplace flexibility are likely to gain the attention of a broader field of qualified professionals than employers who don't, she says, adding that such flexibility also will help reduce turnover.

"Keeping staff comfortable and content is important for retaining key people," Ashe says.

Provisional Staffing Services allows workplace flexibility within its own office of eight employees. "Everybody uses flextime at some time," Ashe says. "The staff works together to make flextime work."

Greater Spokane Incorporated is spearheading an effort to raise awareness among employers here about providing workplace flexibility.

"There is one person entering the work force for every two people who leave it," says Amy Johnson, the economic development group's vice president of work-force development and education, who helps businesses recruit, train, and retain workers. "One way to retain workers is to introduce workplace flexibility."

GSI encouraged some employers here to apply for the national Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexi­bility.

The three Spokane-area finalists for this year's awards are Inland Northwest Health Services (INHS), Career Path Services, and Humanix Corp.

Jennifer Polello, a health education manager for INHS, takes advantage of that organization's workplace flexibility programs by using a combination of telecommuting and flextime. She works from her Colbert home one day a week and works in INHS's downtown office from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. the rest of the week.

"I'm a morning person," Polello says. "I like to come in early, when I can get a lot done, and I can leave here before the traffic gets bad."

She says the option of arranging such a flexible work schedule was one of the reasons she accepted her job at INHS three years ago.

"It's nice that our company encourages and supports it," Polello says.

Ambassadors Group Inc., a Spokane provider of educational travel programs under the People to People program, promotes work-life balance for its employees through the option of flexible work schedules, says Marnae' Litke, the company's vice president of human resources.

Ambassadors Group had to work out some kinks when the workplace-flexibility concept was first rolled out companywide, Litke says.

"Originally it was challenging for some of our people to understand and adapt to the change," she says.

For telecommuters, the company had to develop an internal notification policy to ensure that employees in the office were aware of which co-workers were telecommuting and how they could be contacted, she says.

Workers with flexible schedules are expected to make accommodation in their schedules for regular events such as weekly team-building meetings and monthly associate lunches, Litke says.

Department managers also must ensure that not too many employees who work condensed workweeks take the same days off.

Employees who seek alternatives to the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule must demonstrate that an alternative arrangement is best for them and the company, she says.

"They have to explain why they would be more effective with a flexible schedule," Litke says.

Then, it's up to a department manager to determine whether the schedule is mutually beneficial.

Once a flexible schedule is approved and implemented, it's reviewed six months later, she says.

"With technology today, it's very easy to measure somebody's output," she says.

A few Ambassadors Group employees telecommute she says.

"We teleconference with people for meetings, and they are involved just like they are (in the office)," she says.

She says employees value having some say over their work schedule.

"It helps with employee retention," Litke says. "We expect a lot from our associates. They are performance evaluated."

Ambassadors Group introduced its flexible-scheduling options shortly after it moved into its new headquarters on the West Plains last August.

Litke says about a third of the company's nearly 300 employees there have at least looked at doing some form of flexible work scheduling.

Workplace flexibility is good for an employer's bottom line, asserts Mindy Stewart, co-founder and chief financial officer of Spokane-based Kid­Centric Inc., which provides child-care consulting services to employers.

Before helping to firm KidCentric, Stewart ran several programs for the Santa Clara County Social Service Agency in Central California. After the birth of her first child, she wanted to work from home a couple of days a week. Santa Clara County didn't provide that flexibility, so she quit-and created her own workplace flexibility by becoming a consultant to the county, which still needed her expertise. Eventually it hired her as a consultant at twice her former pay rate, "and I got to work from home every day," she says.

As KidCentric grew, she parted ways with the county, and moved to the Inland Northwest in 2002.

"If the county would have let me telecommute two days a week, I probably would have never quit, and we never would have started this company," she says.

KidCentric extends the workplace-flexibility idea by advising companies how to go about providing on-site day-care services. Most of KidCentric's clients are in Western Washington and California.

Now, as CFO of KidCentric, "I can pretty much work when I want," Stewart says.

Except when they visit clients, Stewart and her business partner, Misty Rose, the company's CEO, work from their homes-Stewart here at Newman Lake, and Rose in California.

John Sporleder, director of human resources at Telect Inc., a Liberty Lake-based telecommunications equipment maker, sees workplace flexibility as increasingly becoming a mainstream tool for optimizing productivity.

"Any company needs to be sensitive in providing an environment where people can do their best work," Sporleder says. "Telect does a good job of understanding that satisfied employees are more productive."

Telect's policies for flextime and personal days aren't formally structured, he says.

"We let managers work with individual employees and employee groups and make sure it works," Sporleder says. Telect employs about 140 employees here, and about half of them start work before 7:30 a.m. and the rest after 8 a.m.

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