Flexibility Helps Employers Deal With Economy

The downturn has clearly given employers more power in their relationship with employees. But very few have wielded that strength to cut back on employee flexibility. In fact, a new survey by New York-based workplace research group Families and Work Institute shows that employers value flexibility more than ever these days. Some are even putting flexibility to work as a means to help them wade their way through these tough economic times.

The institute found during a survey of 400 employers in May that 13 percent of employers said they have increased flexible work options during the economy’s downturn. Just 6 percent said they reduced flexibility, while 81 percent said they didn’t change it either way. The trend was even stronger among large companies. Fully one-fourth of companies with more than 1,000 employees increased their flexible work programs during the tough times. Flexible work options included telecommuting, voluntary reduced hours and shorter work weeks with more hours worked per day. The institute also asked employers to what extent they give employees input into flexible work decisions. The responses were:

• 14% give employees a great deal of input
• 43% give employees some input
• 22% give employees not much input
• 22% give employees no input

The good news is that more than half of employers give their employees at least some input. But just 14 percent, or one in seven, give them a lot of input. The institute said in a report that its When Work Works initiative aims to advance the idea that “effective employers are creating new ways to make work ‘work’ for both themselves and their employees – even in a difficult economy.” One trend the institute is finding involves employers using scheduling flexibility as a means of dealing with the down turn by cutting costs. In many cases, the flexible schedule serves as an alternative to layoffs. Among the options the institute sees are companies offering reduced hours or unpaid days off instead of laying off employees. Companies are also giving employees days off, such as four Fridays off during the summer, in place of raises they cannot afford these days.

Some are letting employees work from home a couple of days per week in order to save on commuting costs, or giving employees more flexibility in their schedules if their spouse lost a job or had work hours reduced to minimize the impact on the family. And others allow employees to take as much unpaid time off as they want while maintaining their benefits and right to come back to their jobs. The institute noted Microchip Technology Inc. hasn’t had any layoffs in five years while other semiconductor companies have had plenty of layoffs. Microchip used pay cuts and temporary shutdowns to save costs and avoid layoffs. It scheduled a shutdown over spring break to allow families to spend time with their children. And it allowed employees to take unlimited time off, without pay, while keeping benefits.

Employers are also seeking help from employees in finding ways to deal with the tough economic situation. Social networking is a key means of communication in gathering these ideas. Employees at one Michigan printing services company helped come up with a plan to cut costs by changing procedures and spending, shifting job duties and creating more job flexibility. At the same time, their plan involved expanding the business. That company had less than 20 employees. But another group of 600 employees found plenty of new ways from its workers to cut costs and improve processes while providing better service. It also encouraged employees to share personal tips for handling the recession. Some employers are working with employees during the recession by offering them financial assistance.

For example, 1-800-CONTACTS Inc. has an employee outreach fund that offers emergency one-time financial assistance to employees who face particularly dire financial straits. It gave out more than $14,000 last year, which helped many employees keep their homes. Other companies have offered short-term loans or no-interest loans for emergencies. One company created a fund out of voluntary payroll deductions to provide employees with emergency funds. Another offers a wide range of services, such as financial education, seminars for unemployed family members, an emergency fund for employees’ families, housing assistance and college tuition assistance. Employers are providing more financial information these days as a way to help employees, too. Many make financial counselors available to help employees manage their money. Others provide financial literacy education programs. Some work with area groups to see if certain employees qualify for public benefits, such as food stamps or children’s health insurance.

Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co., for example, provides company-paid financial planning meetings and seminars. It also offers college scholarships for employees’ children. Companies face plenty of economic challenges these days. But with some flexibility and input from their employees, they can manage the rough waters a lot more smoothly.

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