Flextime catches on in business, but size matters

Flexible work schedules have apparently become a benefit that helps some companies retain workers, whose lives don’t mesh with the traditional nine to five workday. “Organizations have noticed they really have to do this to retain and to hire,” said Ron DiBattista, chairman of Bryant College’s management department. “It’s becoming a necessary perk.”

In some cases, however, it might be easier for large corporations to let employees start or end their workday at non-traditional hours, than it is for small businesses, DiBattista added.

“I think it’s a little tougher with small businesses, because you’re not really able to have the manpower to continue to staff the amount of people you need to work,” he said. “Smaller companies may be able to use flextime without really calling it flextime.”

Faculty at the Smithfield college include flextime in the curriculum in at least two courses, according to DiBattista.

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The whole concept of flexible work schedules really began to emerge in the early 1980s, when organizations started letting parents come in to work late because they needed to drop children off at school or at a child care program, DiBattista said. Initially some organizations required workers to be in the office at a set time, in order to hold staff meetings, he added. Some organizations still have rules like that.

At Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. – which is a Watertown, Mass.-based consulting engineering firm with a Providence office – workers can clock out before 5 p.m., but they must stay until at least 4 p.m., according to spokeswoman Kate Johnson. They also must be to work by 9 a.m., she said, explaining 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. are peak work hours.

No one in the 60 person Providence office takes advantage of the benefit, said Johnson, adding it’s a popular convenience with workers in the Boston-area office.

“I guess the extra hour does people good if they have to fight traffic, pick up kids or whatever,” she said.

But the flextime model has changed a lot in nearly 20 years, and the very definition of flextime can vary from one company to another.

That’s because voicemail, video conferencing, e-mail and other technologies have made it even easier for companies to grant flexible work schedules and conditions, DiBattista said. And workers without children began demanding equal treatment as well.

“The overall term flextime, I think everyone understands it to mean that the hours are flexible,” said DiBattista, explaining that could mean employees come in at 10 a.m. at one company and job sharing at another. “I think every organization has had to define it.”

At Econotel Business Systems Inc., an East Providence telecommunications company, several employees have had flexible schedules, according to company President Carol Ann Hurley. One technician is a single mother and she is scheduled to work at 8:30 a.m., instead of the standard 8 a.m., so she can get her children to school, Hurley said.

“That’s worked for the employee and it works for us. You want to help your employees, especially if they’re in stressful situations,” she said.

Econotel deals with each individual employee as situations arise, Hurley explained. “We just make special arrangements for them. I find it works well, because you’re making their personal life easier and they’re grateful they’re in a better frame of mind for your customers.”

Jo Anne Medeiros, who is Econotel’s controller, agreed. She has been working 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the past three months, but not because she has child care issues. Instead she needs to have quiet time in the office to finish an important project.

“We basically did this because I was getting bombarded with questions the minute I walked in the door,” said Medeiros, adding the questions distracted her from the project.

Medeiros found herself arriving at work around 8 a.m. and staying until 7 p.m., so she could finish work after hours when no one else was around.

“I’ve worked other places where they’ve said, ‘You want to work till 7 be my guest, but you’ve got to be here at 8 o’clock,'” Medeiros said. With the adjusted schedule, however, “you don’t have me sitting here at 7 o’clock being really resentful, because I’ve been here for 12 hours already.”

Now she’s even ahead of schedule on the project and considering keeping the flextime hours after her task is complete.

“It’s made a big difference,” Medeiros said.

In addition to giving her built-in quiet time, Medeiros said she appreciates still having time to do her grocery shopping and other errands. “At least if I have the flextime, I get to get some of my personal errands done. I don’t leave here feeling like I’ve still got to get five things done,” she said.

Bryant’s DiBattista said: “It’s a benefit primarily from a matter of building commitment and building a stable workforce.

“I think the most important thing is to retain that employee. If the employee were locked into certain prescribed hours, he or she would have to look elsewhere,” he explained. “Salaries are important, but the availability of flextime is really considered to be a benefit.”

Though academic research has shown flextime doesn’t “suit everyone,” it appears to be an effective tool helping many companies retain valuable employees, DiBattista said.

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