Moving Beyond The Fears – and the Falsehoods – of Flex Time

Whenever I talked to employees about flex time, they were always excited about the possibilities. They would think “I can work extra on Tuesdays so I can leave early on Wednesdays.” Or if they wanted a three-day weekend, they would think “Hey, I can work more hours Monday through Thursday and then get Friday off!” Exciting right?

Except it doesn’t always turn out that way. Managers think that they now have more flexibility too (and they should!). They still assume that you will be working at least 40 hours a week (or whatever was your hours expectation before). In fact, some of the HR pros I’ve talked to who’ve implemented flex time packages in their workplaces have retreated in as a little as a few months after implementing them.

That’s tough. It’s not only a morale-buster, it shows a lack of thought about the significant assumptions that we currently have about work.

Work as a thing you do, not a place you are

Flex time schemes are based on the assumption that you can work independent of location or that you have workload flexibility. That, in and of itself, is problematic.

For one thing, location does matter for many jobs. Take a retail position or one in manufacturing, for example. These positions require a real, physical presence in a single location during a fixed period of time.

Selling flex time to this group is disingenuous. What ends up happening is simply a scheduling scheme that companies probably should have been doing anyways. Building in flexibility, priority, and fairness into a scheduling process is good practice — but it isn’t workplace flexibility.

The workload question

If you have seasonal work periods, it may be easy to pick those off season times as flexible spaces. What happens during the busy seasons, though? For example, if you’re working for a typical tax accounting firm this time of year, you probably aren’t getting much time off but you still may need it.

So what is work flexibility for these employees? It is being flexible when you can. A policy like that would be a good practice anyway, but certainly not full out workplace flexibility. There are some that overcome this and give some true flexibility, but it isn’t the norm. At least not yet.

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Similarly, other jobs have times of the week or month that have little flexibility. And unless you are truly working on a project by project basis, there will probably be times when flexibility isn’t always a luxury.

Lack of creative thinking or reality?

Of course, advocates of ROWE have previously skewered me for not thinking about how these challenges could be reversed. They cite examples of companies that have overcome logistical adversity to make it happen.

I applaud the effort but some workplaces require some amount of inflexibility as a function, not simply through a desire to control employees and their schedule. If you operate a manufacturing facility that is up running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you’re going to have a lot of inflexibility. And many companies can’t afford to hire the extra heads to cover the sort of flexibility that these programs demand.

But past that, there is one more issue with flexibility that can’t be talked about enough.

The manager issue

The one thing that seems to be completely overlooked are managers. Let’s say you’re a company that is ripe for the sort of flexible scheduling that advocates dream of. How do you deal with issues like:

  • What if an employee works extra hard on delivering a project and wants to flex a day or two after? This has been a key complaint from employees I know in legitimate flex time situations. They say they work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week delivering a project, and when they get to the end of it, they want to take a couple days of downtime. Their manager often sees this as time off instead of being flexible. Employees don’t agree and it causes a major issue that isn’t always solved by saying “Make the manager give in.” Adding structure is often the solution to this issue.
  • Shouldn’t hours requirements go out the window completely? Some employees take the ROWE perspective and say it doesn’t matter what hours they work so long as they get work done. Easier said than done. Overcoming hundreds of years of measuring throughput by hours worked is more difficult than most think. How does a manager determine if they are overworking or underworking an employee? The simple thing about tracking hours is that it creates workload expectation. Added variability is the last thing some employees want or need in their work schedules.
  • Are results the only measuring stick? One would think that results are often not the measuring stick. Researchers often spend years without making significant progress on a major project. So much in research is variable that this shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is how many of them keep their job year after year with so little to account for. What’s important in research is mostly the process in which discovery and progress is made (eventually, following this process will end with results). In many cases, all kinds of non-results based factors play into fair evaluation of employee work.

Getting past fears and falsehoods

Of course, there are companies that believe many of the unfounded fears about flexible time. I don’t want to discount that either, but addressing both the fears of flex time haters and the falsehoods of flex time advocates is going to be key to implementing a program without a retreat later down the road. And believe me, you don’t want that.


7 Comments on “Moving Beyond The Fears – and the Falsehoods – of Flex Time

  1. I hate to say this Lance but this is a REALLY disappointing article especially because you’ve tried to shoe horn ROWE into it. Not only does the article not actually deal with the principle of its title – there was little “moving beyond” anything (in fact all it seems to imply is the “fears” and “falsehoods” of flex time were justified – with which I agree with – but that at best in some cases we should just accept it but worse, that ROWE is lumped in as a “legitimate” flex time option. ROWE is absolutely NOT flex time and should not be used within the same context. It IS a management strategy and cultural change process to overcome the impediments of traditional work places, whatever they are…as best we can. Of course there will be industries and jobs that require more thought and attention to solve than others but the concept under your “management” issue that bse “Overcoming hundreds of years of measuring throughput by hours worked is more difficult than most think” is a reason not to go down that path in case we have to “retreat” is completely negative in its rationale. The message should be, its difficult because its hundreds of years old. Its hundred of years old and therefore has to be dealt with so steal yourselves, research, study, plan and prepare and when ready get the best people to drive the change for the benefit of all…..In regards to the final point under “management”, everything has a “result”, you just need to agree what that result is. This is tough, sure, but metrics have always been qualitative and qualitative, so with the right minds ont eh case it is definable and measurable…

    1. Rob,

      Thanks for the comment. It seems ROWE fans always think I miss the point of ROWE unless I am giving it effusive praise.

      If you can point me to a company that has implemented ROWE without a flexible time component, let me know. The name of the book they wrote was: Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke. Flextime isn’t just implied, it is stated outright.

      So I’ll shoehorn in ROWE into flextime discussions the same way they’ve shoehorned in flextime into culture discussions. The problems in the workplace don’t always revolve around work schedules. That’s the false promise of flextime.

      1. Hi Lance,
        No problems, it’s always good to debate! I am actually a fan of a lot of things you post here and often retweet them but sorry, on this one, I can’t agree.
        I think I was clear why you missed the point and at no point did I mention it was because I was a ROWE fan, and everything to do with the fact ROWE is not a flex plan and therefore a bit Apples/Oranges in your response. ROWE doesn’t need to be discussed with effusive praise, but it does deserve to be in the right context and understood properly.
        Again, I’m afraid you’ve made a misaligned point “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke” doesn’t actually mention the words FLEX or TIME at all, let alone “outright” or even really “implied”, so I’m confused as to why you would make a statement like that. Sure, time exists but that’s kind of universal. Schedules and Meetings are things we do with our time at work which isn’t implying TIME itslef. Finally, Culture at work talks about time so to remove it, it has to be part of the discussion and you have to talk about it. However, if you talk about flexi time, you don’t have to talk about ROWE (in fact shouldn’t) because if it’s not the solution you’re going for, it has nothing to do with the subject???? It’s a nonreciprocal shoe horn 🙂 I am however glad you have admitted you did shoe horn, even if it was for the wrong reason. Of course problems don’t always revolve around work schedules which is why the book and then the whole implementation are about much broader and important cultural change subjects. It is a book title only.
        In regards to a company that has ROWE without flextime then it’s the one I work in…so now you know…and if I haven’t managed to change your mind then fine, at least there is context for others…thanks, Rob

        1. So you’re saying that when they say “No Schedule” in the title of the book, it isn’t just a radical version of flex time because it doesn’t mention flexibility specifically? Even though “No Schedule” by its very definition would also be maximum time flexibility? Or when they say on the first line of the website, “Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence,” they don’t mean an actual work presence? Or when they talk about how much easier it is to take time off from work in a blog post, they don’t outright state workplace flexibility?

          The distinction is splitting hairs and word games. There is no deeper meaning when it comes to the reality of ROWE execution: flexibility is a component, if not the deciding factor of any ROWE program.

          1. Exactly. It maybe splitting hairs but its not word games, its fundamentally different. As I said, its Apples/Oranges. they are both fruit but very different in feel and what you get from them,

        2. Rob,

          Here’s an example for you: I don’t like the way you look, so I’m not going to hire you.

          Is that discrimination?

          I didn’t say I don’t like you because of your skin color or a disability or anything, so it’s not discrimination, right?

          How is ROWE any different? No schedules is extreme flexibility in time. You can wordsmith it all you want, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And even Best Buy can’t figure out how to make this work in their stores (similar constraits as faced by a manufacturing environment), so obviously Lance makes some relaly good points.

          Is ROWE awesome? Sure! I work in a quasi-ROWE right now. But that doesn’t make the challenges or issues and complexities any less real.

          – Chris

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