Beyond 9-to-5: Why flexibility works

Let’s be honest — the nine-to-five workday isn’t for everyone. Nor is being chained to a desk seven days a week or having only two weeks of vacation.

Imagine leaving your cubicle at any time of the day and working outside via a wireless campus your company has set up. If you worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, you could. If Utah-based Arup Laboratories were your employer, you’d work seven days on, seven days off — and still be considered full-time. Ever have days where you can’t seem to break away for lunch? NRG::Seattle forces you to. Every day around noon, the insurance company goes dark so that everyone must take an hour break for lunch. The goal: come back feeling recharged.

“In the past, an employee who wanted to work in a different way might have made a personal deal with his/her boss under the table,” says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Today employees and employers are working together to find new ways to restructure the workplace in unique ways to give people the flexibility they need to improve bottom line business measures like productivity and retention at the same time.”

Why it works?

‘Making Work Work: New Ideas from the Winners of the Alfred P Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility’, a report from the FWI, compiles case studies of various employers who’ve recognised that a traditional nine-to-five workplace isn’t always the best option. FWI research shows employees who work in flexible workplaces are more likely to —

Be engaged in their jobs and committed to helping their organisations succeed.

Plan on staying with their employer.

Be satisfied with their jobs.

Exhibit better mental health.

Studies have shown that time away from work refuels employees’ productivity. The bottom line: Flexibility must work for both the employer and employee.

Flexibility culture

Companies of different sizes, objectives and atmospheres share one common ground: Flexibility is their foundation. At NRG: Seattle, a 14-person insurance company, owner Michelle Rupp insists that everyone work at home one day each week. All staff members take a three-hour break one Friday afternoon each month for personal appointments and obligations. Additionally, employees get an extra month’s vacation every five years.

“If they put those weeks together with their regular vacation, they have two consecutive months off,” Rupp says in the report. “It’s a little sabbatical. It may mean extra work for colleagues, but everyone knows their time will come.”

Flexible scheduling allows employees to communicate with clients in different time zones or maybe even a different country. Kathy Bailey, owner of Washington, DC-based Bailey Law Group, is indifferent to where her people work or how they schedule hours. She trusts her staff members to work when they need to work.

“Our hours are 8:30 am to 6 pm, but no one looks askance if someone comes in at 10:00 am,” Bailey says in the report. “People just communicate with each other to schedule meetings at convenient times, or we e-mail each other back and forth.”

And here’s a bonus: It can be good for the environment. Time off (or at least time out of the office) puts fewer gas fumes in the air — a mission of the EPA at Research Triangle Park.

“At the EPA we have a higher cause: to promote the health of the planet and the people who live on it,” Chris Long, director of sustainable development, explains in the report. “We know we can’t expect huge salaries, so that makes it even more important to have flexibility.” EPA members in Durham start with two and a half weeks of vacation and can build up to more than five weeks per year. Employees accumulate 13 sick days, which can roll over or be used for personal reasons.

Make your own plan

There are endless options when it comes to workplace flexibility: reduced time, mandatory breaks, longer vacations, et cetera. If you think a little flexitime could do you some good, use these tips from the FWI report on how to make a winning bid for workplace flexibility.

•Figure out what you need.

•Scope out your own working style.

•Identify the equipment you’ll need.

•Understand your employer’s policies.

•Evaluate the impact on your career.

•Think about the effect on customers and colleagues.

•Have a plan for staying in touch.

•Have a plan for dealing with emergencies.

•Create a business case for flexibility.

•Understand your supervisor’s experiences with flexibility.

•Play to your supervisor’s style.

•Be flexible about working flexibility.

•Suggest a trial period. — Rachel Zupek