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By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As the economy picks up and employers’ competition for workers becomes more intense, you will see more innovative and flexible work arrangements touted as a strategic advantage in the scramble for certain kinds of workers.

Among the things that will become ever more common --

  • 4-day work weeks;
  • Hybrid work weeks – working from home some days, perhaps even most of the week, but also showing up in the office for essential meetings and group activities.
  • More flexible work weeks – involving both where and when work is performed.
  • More focus on achieving project goals and less on conforming to routine work rules like starting and ending times.
  • Long distance employment – if it doesn’t matter where you do your work, you may be employed by someone in another state or even in another country.
  • More contract work arrangements – where workers aren’t employed but paid for the work they do according to a contractual agreement, with the worker responsible for his or her own FICA and income taxes, as well as health insurance and retirement savings.

Saving time and money

Many workers who have worked from home for over a year now have come to see some advantages to that arrangement. They don’t have to spend as much money on work wardrobes and or as much time commuting, and while at home they have more flexibility regarding some child care issues.

Meanwhile, employers can reduce their costs for office space, utilities and other amenities.

Initial challenges

I know working parents whose school age children were “latchkey kids” before the coronavirus reared its ugly head. When the kids’ schools were closed and they had to study from home, it was a challenge for parents and children alike.

But after schools reopened, parents found they could take their kids to school, pick them up, and then spend a little time with them after school – compensating for the time away from their jobs with a couple of hours work in the evening or early morn.

As more schools open with 5-day a week schedules and it appears nearly all schools will be open full-time starting with the fall term, more parents can reap the benefits of working from home without the stress of having to oversee their children’s school day learning activities.

Reaping the benefits

In any event, many parents who have made peace with – or come to love – working from home are not the least bit excited about having to rejoin the rat race of having to dress up five days a week and commute to their offices on their own time and money.

They would vastly prefer continuing to work from home or a hybrid work week to five days in the office – and if their current employer isn’t open to these sorts of innovations, they are looking for other options.

In a rapidly expanding economy, it’s a worker’s market.

As employers compete for workers, pay rates will matter, usually a lot, but so will other perks – most especially work time and work place flexibility.

European experiments

Around the world, many companies have switched to the 4-day work week. Europeans seem to have a special attraction to the idea.

Time magazine reported that a Spanish software firm, Delsol, found that after adopting the shorter week its employee absenteeism fell nearly 30 percent even as satisfaction rates increased for both employees and customers.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has begun a small national experiment testing the impact of the 4-day work week. Many are eager to learn what the test discovers.

Whatever else the trial uncovers, it’s clear that reducing the number of days workers have to commute to work also reduces the amount of pollution generated by commuting.

Tipping point

Environmental impact may just be a tipping point in the whole consideration of how often workers should be required to settle in and be productive in their offices.

Not only does a shorter or hybrid work week reduce the environmental impact of commuting, it can also reduce employers’ carbon footprints at a time when governments and workers are both sensitive to that. Some employers have reduced or abandoned altogether their office space, cutting the cost of their utilities and carbon load significantly at the same time.

That’s the kind of thing that many younger workers find especially attractive – which can give employers an edge when competing for those workers. Being able to offer them maximum employment flexibility while also significantly minimizing carbon generation could provide a competitive edge for attracting the best and the brightest.

Meanwhile, employers reduce leasing and utility costs, with those savings going to the bottom line.

Flexibility the key

As time passes and the economy heats up, employers are finding that the new key criteria for success in building dynamic teams and generating healthy profits is flexibility.

When I first entered the full-time work force many eons ago, all of us were expected to show up at the same time, take lunch at the same time, leave at the same time, wait several months to be eligible for health benefits and a year or two for profit-sharing, and also wait a full year before we could take a week’s paid vacation.

After that we had to settle for one week’s vacation a year until we were with the company five years, after which we got two weeks off. No matter how long you stayed, you would never get more than two weeks off.

I doubt anyone would go to work for such a firm today unless every other employer in the market had already turned them down. That would make my old firm an “employer of last resort” – never a good situation to be in when corporate success requires, as it usually does, a highly skilled, highly motivated and highly engaged workforce.

Non-profits impacted

The changes we’re seeing in the for-profit world affects non-profit organizations too, because they compete with for-profit employers when building and maintaining their own workforces – and as big employers offer ever more flexible work arrangements, the expectations of all workers adjust to reflect those changes.

Also, employment policies affect an employer’s public image. Non-profits with rigid work rules will be perceived as rigid themselves, which is likely to negatively impact the level of public sympathy and support they get.

The keys for management in both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds trying to build stable, happy, productive workforces will be to listen, care, anticipate and adjust.  One size does not fit all – and, in fact, it may not fit any at all.

As an old adage goes: “You snooze, you lose.”

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