A Flexible Option to Fight the Rising Cost of Employee Benefits

As new and existing small businesses look for creative ways to offer benefits in order to stay competitive, more employees are also asking for some degree of flexible work arrangements. Given the rising cost of employee benefits, is this something your business should consider? If your employees make this request, would you listen? The benefits and drawbacks of flextime (for companies, employees and managers in the middle) should all be carefully thought out before deciding what kind of flexibility is the best fit for your company and your employees.

Does flextime mean what you think it means?

Companies offer a large variety of flexible working arrangements, and what is right for one company or employee will not be the best fit for another. True flextime means employees set their own schedules within a range of hours set by the company. For example, employees may start and end work two hours later on certain days of the week, while still working the usual number of hours per day.

Other arrangements in the “flexible” category are even more common, however, such as telecommuting. Some companies offer employees set days or hours to work at home, but employees are expected to work regular company hours on those days. Other companies offer employees the option of making up time lost to appointments or other short-term commitments during the workday by taking work home at night; this kind of flexible scheduling may be codified in a compensation time system or approved on an ad hoc basis.

Offering employees the ability to set their own schedules (as long as they get their work done, of course) is the most flexible arrangement, but management may still require all employees to be in the office for a set number of core hours every week. This option is best suited for salaried employees who have already earned a great degree of independence in their work. 

Surprise! Your employees are probably already working from home

Even if you don’t have a flex or comp time policy, it’s likely many of your employees are working outside the bounds of regular 9 to 5 hours already. The constant accessibility of email via cell phones means that many employees are probably already reading, responding to and sending emails at night and on weekends, even if they are not asking for compensation for work that occurs outside of the office. Anyone who’s ever received an email from their boss at 1 a.m. has felt the pressure to fight off sleep deprivation and reply.

Why flextime is good for employees and the bottom line

If you’ve been feeling the pinch from benefit cost increases, you probably already know that offering low- or no-cost alternatives can keep morale up without breaking the bank. Flexible hours are a major perk to employees because it allows them to prioritize personal and family business as needed, without using up their vacation and sick time. They don’t have to worry about missing their child’s game and can work in their pajamas at 3 a.m. if that’s when inspiration strikes. Employee retention may improve, as workers feel more loyal to a company that responds to their personal needs as well as their professional ones.

For companies, flexible scheduling benefits the bottom line in ways beyond simple costs savings. Savings in individual utilities like electricity may be hard to quantify, but employees may be able to share work space or equipment if their schedules align. More importantly, employees are often more productive at home than in the office because there are substantially less disruptions from co-workers wanting to chat or gossip over coffee. The truth is that employees work more hours with flextime than they ever would by being in the office for set times each and every weekday. They are never late due to traffic or tired and stressed out due to their commute.

Potential pitfalls

Just because the technology exists to answer emails, make calls and participate in video conferences 24/7 doesn’t mean your employees should be doing so. You don’t want your employees to burn themselves out by working around the clock. Provide guidance for employees who work at home to take breaks and establish no-work time blocks (barring emergencies) in order to be refreshed. Employees who don’t sleep don’t contribute quality work.

You must also make sure that employees come into the office enough to maintain connection. Colleagues on opposite flextime schedules may never see each other in person and thus feel less personal responsibility to each other and their teams. If employees come into the office on a day they typically work from home, will they find someone else sitting at “their” computer? Make sure to weigh any costs savings in sharing office space against potential personnel backlash.

When flextime doesn’t work

As long as companies continue to pay hourly wages, it’s unlikely that these positions are ones that can be completed within flex hours. Quite simply, costs would get out of control very quickly without clear limits on hours allowed to be worked per day. Also, hourly employees tend to do the kind of work that requires presence in the office—greeting clients at the front desk, processing paperwork, filing, etc.

However, minor ad hoc flexibility for the odd appointment here and there, if your company’s business hours allow for the time to be made up onsite, could foster goodwill and prevent resentment toward employees with flextime arrangements.

Flextime: the future is here

To make the case for flextime at your startup, emphasize increased productivity and morale, but also remind higher-ups that good employees may be tempted by more flexible work schedules elsewhere. Caution all involved in the decision not to engage in all-or-nothing thinking.

An informal poll allows employees to present their suggestions, which may call for much smaller adjustments in their schedules than you imagine they desire. As an added bonus, you may get more responses to your after-work emails. Just try to refrain from the 3 a.m. weekend ones!

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