Early or late starting and quitting times, compressed work weeks, part-time and part-year employment, working off-site by computer, and phased retirement are just some of the flexible work options that companies can use to manage when, where, and how much employees work.
These time and place management (TPM) policies were daunting enough for employers to test-drive when the United States economy was on a fast track. Since December 2007, however, we have endured an 18-month recession, followed by a recovery that has been more sluggish than any other in recent memory. In the early 1980s it took seven quarters for the economy (i.e., Gross Domestic Product (GDP)) to “bounce back” and reach its pre-recession high, in the early 1990s it took five quarters, and in the early 2000s it took just one quarter. We are 16 quarters past the pre-recession high in 2007 and only now have we reached GDP levels that were achieved prior to the downturn. In such a business environment, employers are understandably nervous about making big workplace changes.
But is today’s lackluster economy really a signal to hold back on introducing or expanding a TPM policy? Here are five reasons why forward-looking managers see a green light where others see red.
- Improvements in productivity are always welcome. Most studies show a positive association between TPM policies and employee performance and well-being. Evidence suggests that a policy that is implemented well can benefit employers and employees alike, because the satisfaction that employees get from them can lead to increased productivity. More important, perhaps, these benefits are not dependent on economic conditions. They are valuable whether the macro economy is in recession or a boom.
- Attracting and retaining top talent is always a priority. Employees often cite flexible work options as being important dimensions of job quality. Employers seem to be getting the message. In June 2011, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported the results of a national survey of chief executive officers, chief financial officers, human resources executives, and benefits administrators on workplace benefits. Half of the respondents said they use flexible or customized work schedules to retain older workers; 45 percent said they use these tools to attract younger workers. According to a report by Corporate Voices for Working Families, the role of flexible work arrangements on retention and recruitment is “one of the best-documented and most strongly argued aspects of the flexibility business case.” Like productivity, top talent is always in demand, regardless of the economic conditions of the day.
- Competition is alive and well. Firms compete no matter the economic climate. Innovation is a key part of this competition and innovations in the workplace are no different from innovations in a line of products or services. Firms that innovate not only what they produce but also how they do it have a competitive edge.
- Technology continues to advance. Economic growth may be slow, but new technology continues to move TPM forward, opening up options for employees and employers. Web-based self-scheduling software (for example, Stay Staffed and Celayix Software) helps full-time, part-time, and contractual employees manage their time in tune with the demands of the workplace and of their personal lives and lets supervisors plan and monitor effectively. Software for document sharing and virtual meetings allows employees in scattered locations to work collaboratively. Managers must stay up to date with innovations in TPM strategies. Options that might have been prohibitive — technologically or otherwise — recently could now be viable and valuable to pursue.
- The economy won’t be stuck in the mud forever. Business leaders are looking ahead to shape the way their companies will emerge from this period of slow economic recovery. Leaders know they must have a workforce positioned to respond quickly when the inevitable increase in demand takes place. Adopting TPM policies is one way to get ready.
There are at least two good reasons why managers might hesitate to adopt a new TPM policy or change one that’s in place. One reason is that more research needs to be done to determine the precise impact of TPM policies on business-relevant outcomes. (An innovative study launched in June 2011 by the Sloan Center is addressing this issue.) Another reason is that company-specific challenges, such as the process of obtaining buy-in among key decision makers, can make adopting a TPM policy difficult. These are valid objections. Our weak economy is not.
Kevin E. Cahill, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College