By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008
They have replaced incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, cut the number of cars in their fleets and embraced hybrids. They have planted native grasses to cut down on lawn maintenance and, with it, fuel consumption. Now a growing number of businesses and state and local governments from Fairfax to Detroit to Salt Lake City are pondering a strategy for saving on utility costs and being kind to the environment: telling their workers, stay home.
Congress, too, is weighing in on the merits of flexible work schedules. This month, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) proposed that more federal workers shift to a four-day, 10-hour-a-day workweek to help eliminate unnecessary commuting and reduce road congestion. He asked the Office of Personnel Management to analyze whether such a shift would be possible and report back by the end of this month.
Such scheduling arrangements, in which employees work longer hours but fewer days, share jobs or stagger start or quitting times, have been a part of the U.S. workplace for years. But in recent months, interest in flextime has been growing quickly. From Howard County to Chrysler's manufacturing lines, employers who want to cut costs, show environmental sensitivity and attract young workers who seek flexible schedules are brushing aside some critics' productivity concerns to embrace the new proposals.
This month, Utah became the first state in the country to take the leap, shifting most of its 17,000 state employees to a mandatory 10-hour-a-day, four-day workweek and closing most state offices on Fridays. Hawaii is piloting a similar experiment with about 100 state workers, and officials in Fairfax County are studying whether such an arrangement would work for them. Even officials in governments that are not ready to move to a four-day week, such as those in Michigan and West Virginia, say they might allow more workers to do so or to work other alternative schedules to help them save money and reduce commuting stress.
After taking other steps to reduce energy consumption, car giant Chrysler is pondering whether to shift about a dozen of its manufacturing facilities and several of its parts units to 10-hour, four-day workweeks. The change, which must be negotiated with unions, could affect more than 10,000 workers. Because it could mean plants would be shuttered three days instead of two, it could save the company millions in utility costs, spokesman Ed Saenz said.
Utah officials estimate they could save $3 million a year or more in utility costs, said Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R). Taking into account commuting time and the money employees could save on gas, the savings could be far more significant, she added.
Robert Trumble, a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, "This idea that the public sector would move in and try to encourage [alternative scheduling], based on the idea of reducing traffic congestion, reducing pollution, most find it an appropriate time because of the price of gas."
Added James Craft, a professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh: "We're in the midst of a very different sort of work world than we used to be. We're competing globally, and it makes sense to have more flexibility, more sense to have a framework where we're going to be able to adjust in a hypercompetitive world."
The five-day workweek has been part of U.S. culture for about 100 years, but in the 1970s, some businesses began trying out flexible schedules to address environmental concerns when the Clean Air Act required many cities to reduce pollution.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004, nearly 28 percent of workers, or more than 27 million people, worked schedules that allowed them to vary their start or ending times. Men were more likely to have flexible arrangements than women, the statistics show.
Howard is encouraging employees to consider new schedules. Among their options are a workweek that would give them every other Friday off. Officials said many employees are taking the county up on the offer.
This summer, the National Geographic Society piloted a schedule similar to the one being offered in Howard, in which employees work 80 hours over nine days. That schedule gave the bulk of the society's 1,400-person staff every other Friday off.
According to Tony Sablo, senior vice president for human resources at National Geographic, President and Chief Executive John Fahey proposed trying the modified workweek for the summer. Although morale, not economics, was the main driver behind the shift, Sablo said the fact that "1,400 people aren't commuting every other Friday" is a plus for workers and for the environment. Sablo said officials are studying whether to extend the program beyond summer.
Craft said that although many decisions are being driven by a desire to reduce costs, companies also view flexible scheduling as a way to attract younger employees, who often do not think a traditional five-day, eight-hour-a-day workweek fits with their lifestyle. "Those born in Generation Y and beyond want more flexible work lives," he said.
Some other employers, such as Howard and Montgomery counties, are drawn to the environmental benefits of such changes. Although the counties will not save a significant amount of money on utilities and other costs because most of their offices will remain open five days a week, officials say allowing a small number of workers to stagger schedules or work one less weekday can ease congestion, which cuts down on gas consumption, and reduce their carbon footprint.
In a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, Hoyer said that putting even 20 percent of the estimated 400,000 Washington area residents employed by the federal government on a four-day-a-week schedule could generate "significant cost savings for the American taxpayer without a drop in productivity or decrease in service."
Although much of the research on flexible scheduling has measured employee and employer reaction to such arrangements (most love it), a 2005 study by the nonprofit group Corporate Voices for Working Families found that flexible work arrangements offered benefits to customers as well, enabling some companies to offer extended hours. One Tennessee bank estimated it saved more than $3 million in turnover costs by shifting to flexible hours.
Human resource experts, however, caution companies about moving too hastily. Once put in place, flexible hours are difficult to undo, and some experts say they wonder whether employees would be as productive on flexible schedules.
David Lewis, president of OperationsInc, a Connecticut-based human resources consulting firm, said although he encourages companies to consider such arrangements, he is concerned that too many businesses are not thinking of the long-term impact.
"I've been taken aback over the last few months over how many firms are going this route of the condensed workweek," he said.
"Once you put some of these things in place, it's a disaster to try and undo them. You can't go back to employees and say, 'Remember all that stuff in terms of flexible work arrangements? Well, forget it; we're reverting back to the old way.' Talk about a revolution."
But many experts say the U.S. workplace is due for a significant shift, especially as more and more workers embrace such changes.
A shorter workweek helped lure Sara Campbell from her job with the Howard County school system to a job working in the human resources department of the Howard government. Campbell, 26, said four 10-hour days leave her more time to run errands, schedule doctor's appointments and spend time with her two children, ages 4 and 1.
"It's a real morale-booster," she said. "There's just so much less stress, because I know I have that extra day."