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Flexible schedules work best when thought out, detailed

Every week brings another announcement of a government agency adopting a four-day week or a business expanding telecommuting options to help minimize employees' pain at the gas pump.

The spike in oil prices — the latest in a host of megatrends pushing organizations to offer alternative work arrangements — seems a golden opportunity for flexibility advocates. But knee-jerk solutions such as four-day weeks and work-from-home Fridays are not necessarily the answer, experts say, and ill-conceived or hastily adopted programs serve neither customers nor employees.

In Ohio, where workers in 23 state agencies enjoyed flexible hours and four-day weeks for about eight years, administrators tightened state policies in February because they said service had suffered. "On Fridays it was difficult to get an answer to a question from some of our business units," said Ron Sylvester, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services.

Ohio's retrenchment bucked a trend toward compressed work weeks in local government, and it distressed some employees. Yet workers in other locales complained that logging four 10-hour days per week would wreak havoc with their family lives.

Karen Noble, leader of the "everywhere workplace" practice at WFD Consulting in Newton, Mass., says "when you say everybody will work four-day weeks, that's 'rigid flexibility' and it's not driven by business needs. It's not even driven necessarily by people's needs. What people want is more control over the imposed paradigm."

Solutions such as carpooling require employers to be more flexible, said Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human relations for the American Management Association. "People need to be able to leave on time so that if you're one of four, it's understood you can jump in the car rather than keeping others waiting."

Telework researcher and author Kate Lister says the biggest obstacle to gas savings continues to be "management mistrust" by supervisors who equate face time with productivity. She estimates 50-million jobs could be performed remotely. If all those people worked from home about half the time, gas savings based on an average commute at $4.50 per gallon would total $40-billion, or 60 percent of the nation's Gulf-region oil imports.

Flexible schedules work best when thought out, detailed 08/10/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 4:30am]

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