Flexible Work Options

A flexible workplace allows employees to live balanced lives while making employers more competitive

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 39
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

Flexible work alternatives may be the single most important factor in allowing us to create the lives we want for ourselves and our families. Longer work hours have robbed us of irreplaceable hours with our families, depleted the energy we need to be fully contributing members of our community, and drained away the time it takes to be fully informed citizens.

While some are running out of time from overwork, others are hurting financially and emotionally from lack of work. At least some flexible work options serve to spread existing jobs further, creating a model for a saner, more humane work system.

The following article and table draw on the work of Barney Olmsted and Suzanne Smith of New Ways to Work . Particularly helpful was their book, Creating a Flexible Workplace: How to Select and Manage Alternative Work Options, the revised edition of which will be published this fall by the American Management Association.

Hardly a month goes by without a major corporation like Xerox or IBM announcing a layoff or downsizing. According to Barney Olmsted and Suzanne Smith, this trend could go in one of two directions:

Our work structure could move further into a core-ring configuration, in which a small core of full-time employees receives most of the training, benefits, and relative job security, while the ring – short-term contractors, temporaries, and leased staff – have little job security, few benefits, and receive minimal training.

The alternative is to move toward a three- way stretch, an approach that requires flexibility on the part of work organizations, employees, and society at large. The areas of flexibility include a variety of schedule options, on- and off-site work possibilities, and staff cross-training.

Which of these two directions will prevail is yet to be seen, but the options available to both management and labor in the next few years are as diverse as the employees who might take advantage of them. We’re no longer talking about the few determined teachers and nurses who pioneered job sharing in the ’70s and ’80s. Today, entire companies in a number of fields are offering a wide variety of options.

Large corporations have gradually acknowledged the cost effectiveness as well as the importance to staff morale of working cooperatively with employees to make new working arrangements. Among the bottom line advantages they’ve recognized are: 1) reduction in the cost incurred by losing an employee, especially the costs associated with recruiting and retraining; 2) the positive role that flexible work options play in recruiting new staff; and 3) the capacity of a flexible work force to respond to a rapidly changing, almost volatile, economy. In short, creating a flexible workplace may be one way in which firms can gain an advantage over competitors in both domestic and international markets.

Hewlett-Packard, for example, has initiated flextime, job- and work-sharing, as well as flexible time-off programs combining vacation and sick-leave benefits. Pacific Bell is experimenting with allowing management-level employees the option of telecommuting.


Authors Smith and Olmsted have made flexibility a watchword by introducing the concept of equitable flexibility or "equiflex." In simplest terms, equiflex means combining options in a way that benefits both labor and management.

Children’s Hospital at Stanford University is an encouraging illustration of this trend. With the help of a full-time computer-assisted dispatcher, nurses at Children’s Hospital can choose to participate in a wide variety of flexible work programs, including a relief job-pool system, job-sharing, a wide variety of leave options, and a compressed schedule.

Even more encouraging is the hospital’s statement of goals in offering these options: "to help the staff fit together the sometimes irregular pieces of a modern lifestyle: family demands, professional requirements, personal needs for decompression, variety, and even adventure."

Flexible Work Options: A Summary


Combines "core time" when all are expected to be at work and "flexible time" when employees may or may not be present. Employees are usually expected to work 40 hours/week. Variations include length of day, and starting and quitting times.

Current Status

Available to 15.1% of the work force; 54% (up from 38% in 1988) of US businesses have implemented it. More common with managers, professionals, technicians, and sales staffs than manufacturing and service workers.


* IBM: Most of IBM’s domestic employees are eligible for flexitime. Includes variable, customized and staggered work schedules.

* Auckland, New Zealand City Council Offices: Have a long core time, with fewer flexible hours.


Advantages: Improves employee morale; accomodates the needs of employees with children and other outside demands.

Disadvantage: Lack of supervision during some work hours.


Usually a 40-hour work week is compressed into less than 5 days. The two most popular condensed weeks are four 10-hour days, and the "9-80" model, which is five 9-hour days in one week followed by four 9-hour days the next with every other Friday off.

Current Status

36% of responding companies report use. Fields where it is most commonly used are entertainment/recreation (42%), health care (31%), and government (29%) – especially police and fire departments.


* Shell Canada Ltd: Converted from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, giving employees 3 days off per week.


Advantages: The number of worker trips to the plant are reduced by one-third; employees have longer blocks of personal time.

Disadvantage: Difficult to adjust to 10-12-hour days for some workers.


Labor and management agree on total number of hours per year and then establish a schedule to fit; a variety of schedules result.

Current Status

Most common in round-the-clock production; pioneered in Finnish, Swedish, British pulp & paper. In UK spreading to service organizations like finance and health care.


* Pedigree Petfoods (UK): A contract of 1,739 annual hours was established and joint management/ staff councils drafted options for employee approval.


Advantages: Establishes annual framework within which flexibility is possible. Has broad potential application.


Most positions require more than 20 hours/week but less than 40 and include job security as well as all other rights and benefits but often on a pro-rated basis.

Current Status

Between 65%-85% of companies have some part-timers.18% of all non-agricultural workers were part-time in 1990. Major increases have occured in health services, banking/finance and insurance.


* Levi Strauss & Co, San Francisco (corporate headquarters): Most part-timers are in accounting and secretarial positions, but opportunities are growing in professional-level jobs.


Advantages: Flexibility in work hours; trained-employee retention; improved recruitment.

Disadvantages: Increased benefit costs; less chance for advancement.


The voluntary arrangement in which two people share a single job with salary and benefits pro-rated.

Current Status

Increasingly popular option. Only 11%-18% companies reported its use in 1986; by 1991, 47% of firms were implementing it, and 22% more expect to offer it by 1995. Especially popular in health, education, and legal sectors.


* Sheffield City Council (UK): All posts are eligible; benefits and holidays are divided among job sharing "units."

* Rolscreen Co: Available to all 1,700 employees; sharers work out own schedules while company serves as clearinghouse for future sharers.


Advantages: Allows employee attention to non-work related concerns; retains valued employees; higher productivity through creative scheduling.

Disadvantages: Disproportionate production of "partners" in work unit; difficulty in supervision.


: Provides for gradual retirement through reduction of full-time work in phases (over a number of years).
Senior employees are given part-time employment; retirement income and salary may be combined.

Current Status

Increasing number of employees want to combine part-time work and partial retirement; most surveys indicate a growing number of early retirees.


* Polaroid Corp: "Tapering-Off" program allows older employees to reduce work hours gradually – on daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

* Aetna Insurance: "Graduate Retirement" plan allows reduction to part-time status 2-3 years prior to retirement.


Advantages: Retains talented senior workers, while reducing burnout; expense of health benefits and pension phased in over time.

Disadvantage: May be abused in corporate downsizing efforts.


Either ad-hoc or part of a formal program whereby employees are given the option of reducing hours (from 2%-50%) and compensation for a specified period of time
(6 or 12 months, for example). At end of agreement they can either return to full-time work or renegotiate V-Time.

Current Status

Option is used by 2%-5% of employees in organizations where offered, and often by those with young families. Rarely available as an option in the private sector.


* New York State: V-Time available to 70,000 of employees through reduction in worktime from 5%-30% in 5% increments, the most popular being a 10% reduction.

* San Mateo, California: All county employees are eligible for V-Time.


Advantages: Return to full-time status guaranteed and reduction of time is flexible and negotiated; reduced labor costs.

Disadvantages: Possible reduced commitment to job by employee and abuse by employer as way of gradually getting rid of full-time jobs.


An authorized absence from work that may or may not be paid but does not risk loss of employment rights. There are varying policies about the continuation of benefits during the leave period, reasons for which range from family or education to need for personal or leisure time.

Current Status

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) extends the right to unpaid leave for medical and maternity reasons to employees in companies with more than 50 people. Sabbatical/career break offered by 24% of firms (1991), another 15% expected by 1995.


* Wells Fargo Bank (Calif): Social Service Leave allows a 1-6 months leave to any 3-year employee whose proposal is accepted by a selection committee; their decision is based on the community service content of applicant’s goals.


Advantages: Employee retention, expansion of skill base, reduction of burnout, ability to fulfill family responsibilities.

Disadvantages: Difficulty in managing workload during employee absence; tight guidelines can be a problem.


In order to avoid layoffs, most or all of an organization’s workforce will agree to a reduction in hours and pay.

Current Status

STC and V-Time widespread in Europe as alternative to layoffs. 17 states have passed laws, based on California model allowing partial payment of unemployment.


* State of California: Work Sharing Unemployment Insurance (WSUI); employees whose wages and hours are reduced receive unemployment insurance benefits as a temporary alternative to a permanent layoff.


Advantages: Unemployment "shared" by all employees and costs of layoffs are avoided; preserves affirmative action gains.

Disadvantage: Possible loss of unemployment and fringe benefits.


Applies to any number of arrangements where the employee works off-site, either at home or in a satellite office, commonly known as telecommuting. Also known as "virtual office"; staff are supplied with all necessary equipment.

Current Status

Rapidly expanding option in both private and public sector. In 1993

41.1 million were homeworkers (doing 8 or more hours a week at home) versus 9 million in 1985. 6% of labor force are "telecommuters," 4.5% are "pure telecommuters," up 22% from 1992.


* JC Penney: Employs a telemarketting staff of around 10,000. Customer service reps work "on- line" from their homes with company equipment.

* AT&T, PacTel, US West: All creating working models.


Advantages: Reduction of employer cost; maximum flexibility for employee with family or other obligations.

Disadvantages: Loss of esprit de corps/community aspect of company; supervision problematic.

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