Creative scheduling

Hourly workers are joining the ranks of professionals who prefer flexibility

March 14, 2007|By Barbara Rose | Barbara Rose,Chicago Tribune

A year ago when employees at Citigroup Inc.'s South Dakota credit-card center were offered a chance to pick schedules that better fit their lives, Deb Qualseth jumped at the opportunity to work 10-hour days and take Fridays off.

"It helps you juggle what happens outside this place," said the billing-dispute specialist. "It's made a huge difference."

Historically, only a handful of professionals enjoyed control over when or where they worked.

But some companies, including Citigroup, are offering greater flexibility to hourly workers with traditionally rigid schedules as a way to reduce turnover, increase efficiency or compete in tighter labor markets.

Their efforts, driven by the demands of a round-the-clock economy and the complexities of people's lives, mark an important shift in thinking about how to manage masses of lower-paid employees who make up an increasing percentage of the work force.

"It's not only professional workers that have 24-7 lives; it's all workers," said Donna Klein, president and chief executive of Corporate Voices for Working Families, a nonprofit backed by big companies.

At JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s credit-card center in Elgin, Ill., some top performers make up their own schedules and work only weekends by choice. In Salt Lake City, JetBlue Airways' home-based reservation agents go online to bid for shifts and request schedule changes.

Customer service reps at a Peoples Gas call center in Chicago swap shifts online. Pennsylvania-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc. offers "summers off" and "peak hours" teller positions that are popular with retirees and parents with school-age children.

"This is not about a perk. It's about how the work can be done most efficiently and effectively," said senior consultant Karen Noble, leader of the "Everywhere Workplace" practice at WFD Consulting in Boston.

There are no data on how many hourly employees have some degree of control over their schedules, but experts say the percentage is small.

In many cases, flexibility is a one-way street: Schedules fluctuate unpredictably based on customer traffic or order volume, without regard for workers' preferences.

"Many lower-level workers wish they had a rigid job they could build their life around," said University of Chicago associate professor Susan Lambert, who studies low-wage workers.

But a leading edge of companies in industries such as financial services are looking at more flexible ways to manage thousands of hourly workers who keep vital operations going in the service economy's white-collar factories.

"We're trying to steer managers to understand flexibility is absolutely a business necessity," said Dee Dee Guzman in Houston, manager of JPMorgan Chase's flexibility team.

Flexible work policies have been a fixture of corporate life for more than two decades, but studies show that lower-paid workers are far less likely to be able to pick their starting and quitting times or to work from home.

"This population has not been addressed because it's a harder fix, it's much harder to do," said Klein of Corporate Voices.

Among the barriers are federal overtime laws that are designed to protect employees and require careful tracking of hours.

Lean staffing and the need to provide backup by workers who can step in and do one another's jobs also make it harder to vary shifts while keeping operations running smoothly.

Attitudes are another hurdle.

"It goes back to industrial times," said Noble. "There's a general lack of trust in this level of worker. [Managers think,] `I'm the parent, they're the children. I have to watch them. They're not business partners. I cannot allow them or myself flexibility.'"

Yet, preliminary studies show the payback in loyalty and engagement is almost twice as high for lower-wage workers than for professionals.

"We're speculating they're that much more grateful because they get so much less in terms of work-life supports," Klein said.

At PNC Financial, where 55 percent of the firm's 24,000 employees in eight states are hourly workers, an operations manager was asked to run a pilot program allowing employees to compress work into four-day weeks.

The manager, Ruth Farlee, recalled thinking, "It's operations, it just won't work."

Results were dramatic: Cycle times shortened, error rates declined, and overtime dropped to zero. "Everything we measured showed a positive impact," said corporate recruiting manager Kathy D'Appolonia in Pittsburgh. "It was nothing magic about the schedule. It was about the empowerment of employees. They just worked more efficiently."

Farlee transferred to an ATM unit in the Philadelphia area, where she manages 25 employees who reconcile billing disputes. Two of them had worked in her old unit.

"As soon as I walked in the door, they asked, "When are we going to a compressed schedule?' " she said. "It was a little bit of a challenge. We had to cross-train, that was the key."

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