Flextime: Not a bad stretch

Working 9 to 5, what an outdated way to make a living! This is the age of flextime, when government employees set their own schedules.

Tasked with building a top-notch, diverse workforce, the Office of Personnel Management offers alternative work schedules as a way for federal agencies to increase productivity, lure talent away from the private sector and keep workers happy.

With the program, agencies can scrap traditional eight-hour days and 40-hour weeks in favor of arrangements tailored to individual needs. By striking a better balance on the personal/professional seesaw, workers are expected to achieve greater success on the job.

With nearly all agencies using flextime in some form, and with 1.8 million employees taking advantage of it, according to OPM's most recent count, managers have formed strong opinions about the program. Some love it. Others hate it. But most agree that it is a powerful human resources tool.

"It's essentially a no-cost benefit, so it's almost a no-brainer in favor of offering flextime," said Rich D'Adamo, president of Workforce Solutions LLC.

The government's program includes flexible and compressed work schedules. It requires employees to show up for certain core hours each day but gives them the freedom to start their day and end it as they choose. A worker expected at the office from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. might come in at 7:30 a.m. to beat the traffic and leave at 4:30 p.m. to shuttle kids to sports practices.

Meanwhile, employees also have an option of completing their basic 80-hour, biweekly obligation in fewer than 10 business days. So a worker could log 10-hour days Monday through Thursday and take alternate Fridays off. OPM officials encourage agencies to implement flextime arrangements, but the decision is left to managers and is made on a case-by-case basis.

The importance of flextime works both ways — for workers and managers, according to K. Adair Martinez, deputy chief information officer for the Veterans Benefits Administration.

"The IT work schedule must be designed to accommodate the needs of the customers and to meet all customer requirements," she said. "That is the most important priority." Sometimes, IT workers have to work off-hours, which can be defined as times when customers will not be adversely affected. "When this occurs, flextime is essential," Martinez said.

Linda Wilbanks, CIO at the Goddard Space Flight Center, thinks flextime is great because "it allows people to work the time best for them. Some people are natural morning people. Others work better if they start their work day later."

Government and industry insiders stress the importance of establishing general policies. "You need some guidelines that everyone's aware of, what the parameters are," said Alan Balutis, president and chief operating officer of Veridyne Inc., an information solutions company. Setting policies "fills in details, [providing] understanding for users, fairness for supervisors."

Consider the following scenario: A worker is scheduled to take a day off through flextime, but it snows and the government closes. Does the employee lose those hours or apply them to a future date?

"Laying these things out clearly in advance is much easier for the supervisor," Balutis said.

Even while facilitating hiring, managers say, flextime has its downsides.

"It helps a lot, but you're always in the scenario where you're trying to balance comfort with accomplishing the mission," said Harold Gracey, vice president for systems integration at PEC Solutions Inc. and a former CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It gets harder and harder to gather a group together to do something. In the best situation, [you] wind up with six hours a day when you can count on them being there."

There also are housekeeping issues. "It's difficult to verify what time early arrivers actually arrive or late departers actually depart unless a supervisor keeps the same hours," he said. Managers might feel pressure to work 12-hour days to cover the whole shift, according to Gracey.

The varied schedules become especially problematic if you have a crisis, such as a computer virus, "going on and you need to find two to three key people" who are not there, he said.

"The government does some critical business, and it's hard to accomplish when you already have a crunch in terms of budget [and] have a skill shortage, especially in IT," he said.

For that reason, senior-level executives are less apt to use flextime. For some agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration where employees routinely clock long hours fighting the war on terrorism, flextime is essentially a foreign concept.

For others, the culture change is difficult. "There are managers that still demand face time for their employees so for them to adapt to a situation where employees are not at their desks from 9 to 5, five days a week, can be difficult or unsettling," D'Adamo said. "There can also be communication problems resulting from employees not always being available during so-called normal business hours" and possibly even morale issues.

Still, Gracey said, "It's almost everywhere. It's very, very widely used. [There] are only a few cases where things are so critical [mangers] said 'no.'"

But some aspects of flextime are tough on managers, especially timekeeping. Methods suggested by OPM include sign-in/sign-out sheets and attendance reports with sections for recording arrival and departure times. And metrics are needed to ensure that employees logging unsupervised hours accomplish real work rather than wasting the morning by making coffee, reading a newspaper or surfing the Web, Balutis said.

Managers also must apply policies uniformly, and employees must be willing to adjust their schedules to work on planned days off when the need arises, according to D'Adamo.

Policy and performance issues notwithstanding, when flextime works, it works well, insiders say. Most studies indicate that the program increases efficiency and improves employees' quality of life, he said.

"It helps your employees who have challenging schedules at home, either in the morning getting kids out to school or in the afternoon to pick them up or be home with them," said Renny DiPentima, president and chief operating officer of SRA International Inc. and formerly deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration.

Ira Hobbs, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee, views flexibility as a plus for all parties involved. "It's a real benefit for the employee and the employer," Hobbs said. "Even within your set schedule, you know when you're going to be away from [your desk]. So some of the personal errands we all have to run can [be planned] with certainty."

But the aims of federal flextime rules go beyond increasing productivity and creating a culture that values accommodating attitudes. The program has a strategic element as well.

Many agencies facing human resources crises — and responding to a forecasted brain drain of senior IT workers — see flextime as a way to attract younger recruits. In this climate of budget crunches, it can carry extra weight with employees and job seekers looking for a perk.

"Considering that most federal agencies are finding it particularly difficult to attract younger workers, especially in tight labor markets, and given the fact that younger workers tend to want some measure of control over their work schedules, it is definitely in the federal government's best interest to offer this benefit wherever possible," D'Adamo said.

Flextime also can offset the government's lower pay rates. "We're never going to be able to match the private sector in terms of pure salary and stock options," Balutis said. Offering "a more manageable schedule" makes sense "in terms of attracting younger talent."

Needless to say, the private sector's definition of flextime is different from the government's, according to Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department and now vice president for federal civilian work at General Dynamics Network Systems.

"In the federal government, you come in early and leave early. In the private sector, you come in early and you leave late when you need to," Baker said.

Flextime still works in the private and federal sectors. However, the biggest problem is keeping track of an employee who is working compressed weeks, which means nine days on and the 10th day off.

"That's probably more disruptive," he said. "For some reason, you can never get it straight when their off-day is, and they are off when you go looking for them."

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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