U workers benefit from flexible hours

Bryce Haugen

Most days, Deb Stull Erickson commutes more than 100 miles between her home in Marine on St. Croix, Minn., and the University, where she is an editor in the Office of Human Resources. But Fridays, she avoids the freeways.

Stull Erickson is one of hundreds of University employees who use flexible work arrangements to balance work and family life. She “telecommutes” one day a week, editing and writing for University publications from the comfort of a home office.

“(It’s) a huge benefit, considering gas is almost $2 a gallon,” she said.

With supervisor approval, employees across the University can create their own flexible work arrangements, said Work Life Initiative coordinator Anita Rios. She said workplace flexibility is an invaluable tool for retention and recruitment of employees.

Besides telecommuting, arrangements include compressed work weeks, job-sharing and flexible work hours. Administered by the Office of Human Resources, the Work Life Initiative offers several workshops each year to help supervisors develop arrangements within their departments. The next training session is scheduled for January.

Growing trend

Although workplace flexibility is nothing new, large companies have recently begun to officially embrace it, Rios said.

“(The University is) a large employer, so we need to remain competitive within that context,” she said.

The increased pressures of today’s world have made flexibility more appealing, said Center for Human Resource Development Director Tim Delmont. He said that in the last few years, interest in the arrangements has increased markedly.

“Constraint on peoples’ time is growing; the competition for time is growing,” he said.

Delmont said middle-aged and younger employees seem to be interested.

Increased efficiency

Three of the six employees in the Office of Human Resources communications branch have some sort of flexibility in their schedules, said Director Lori Anne Vicich. She said some employees telecommute and one received a reduced work week to care for her newborn baby.

“I think the more you read about the benefits of flexible work arrangements, you learn people can really get the work done – sometimes more effectively and efficiently,” she said.

Stull Erickson, one of Vicich’s employees, said working from home allows her to concentrate on writing and editing.

“I think (my work is) much better,” she said.

Aurora Center for Education and Advocacy Director Jamie Tiedemann, who has attended Work Life Training sessions, said she’s been promoting flexible work arrangements for years.

“I feel that if you provide Ö flexibility for your staff, you get paid back tenfold,” she said.

“You end up with a much happier work force, and the work output is tremendous, if we’re sensitive to these issues,” she said.

Concerns

Employees from collective bargaining units, professional and administrative, and civil service employee groups have the opportunity to develop flexible work arrangements.

Although flexible work arrangements are good for some University clerical workers, not every deserving worker has the opportunity, said Phyllis Walker, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800. She said that in some cases, supervisors have refused to grant flexibility.

“I think it is unjust in most of these cases,” she said.

University sociology professor Erin Kelly said flexible work arrangements have traditionally benefited managerial workers.

Some employees, such as women, minorities and people with disabilities, don’t have equal access to these arrangements, she said.

Kelly recently co-authored a study that found no employers – among 40 of all sizes interviewed throughout the county – offer flexibility without supervisor approval.

“We’ve found even when employers have written formal policies, they still keep the negotiation in there,” she said.

They also found that despite clear benefits, flexible work arrangements can be socially isolating and hurt promotion opportunities, Kelly said.

Supervisors who are interested in attending the upcoming flexible work arrangement workshop can sign up on the Work Life Initiative Web site.

Rios invited all University employees to sign up for the initiative’s other workshops, which address issues varying from job stress to parenting.