In the ever-evolving business landscape, flexible scheduling has become a hot topic. The reason is simple: when workers have more control of their schedules, they have better work-life balance and thus more satisfaction on the job itself. In its 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study, found that flex programs improved employee satisfaction by 87%, boosted productivity by 71%, and helped retain employees at 65% higher rates. Promising, right?

On the other hand, some flex scheduling practices have come under fire for disempowering workers. There’s flex time…and then there’s underemployment.

While retail, dining, and leisure businesses rely on hourly workers who can’t wait tables or greet customers remotely, there can still be benefits for offering split shifts and flex time to the employees you manage. Let’s figure out if flex time is right for you, and if so, the best practices to take your idea into reality.

Flexible hours can boost employee engagement

Many employees feel stretched on a daily basis between meeting the demands of their jobs and meeting the demands of their lives. Whether it’s a dentist’s appointment or a school pick-up, there are plenty of life events that simply must happen during business hours. Similarly, hourly workers in restaurants and shops often work outside of a traditional 9-5. They may need childcare for some hours in the evening or can’t manage all their errands on the weekend.

Enter: flex time. While managers have found many ways to offer flexible hours to employees, the types that tend to work best for hourly employees are flexible hours that allow for earlier or later start or stop times without altering the number of hours worked. Split shifts mean that hours are worked at different times of the day with one or more breaks in between.

“We need our workplaces to evolve a little more,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, employment expert and director of the New England Work and Family Association. “The technology has evolved, our families are changing, and people’s individual needs are changing.”

Managers that are open to flex time show that they recognize their employees as whole people, not just “Clerk #1.” This translates into lower absenteeism and turnover rates, which benefits the customers’ experience, as well as reducing the cost of replacing employees.

Plus, a split shift approach can heal all kinds of work snafus, like strategically patching busy times with more coverage without every worker pulling a complete shift.

Be aware of potential downsides to flexible scheduling

There is a marked difference between flexible schedules that accommodate employees’ lives and unpredictable shifts that continually shortchange them on hours. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in the lowest income brackets tend to have the most irregular work schedules. Not being able to plan for shifts more than a few days or week in advance degraded work-life balance for those workers.

The study reports,

“Less than 11 percent of workers on ‘regular’ work schedules report ‘often’ experiencing work-family conflict in contrast with as many as 26 percent of irregular/on-call shift employees, and 19 percent of rotating/split shift workers.”

Irregular shift schedules also lead to a feast or famine situation where hourly workers can burn the midnight oil working mandatory overtime during a night when the restaurant is short-staffed but then are sent home early the next night after only an hour’s work.

A retail worker at Uniqlo explains in a 2012 survey by the Retail Action Project that not all flex time is equal:

“I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week, and as many as 40, so my paycheck is always different. How is anyone—a student or parent—supposed to plan their budget with such erratic schedules?”

She has a point.

Another potential pitfall for managers is too many workers taking their flex time simultaneously. This can mean stretching the staff too thin, or key players being absent during important team meetings.

Interested in giving flex time a whirl? Talk to your employees first

If you’re considering allowing flex time and split shifts at your business, talk to your employees  to hear their expectations and what they may hope to gain from more flexible scheduling.

“It can be nearly impossible for some departments or teams at a company to provide a flexible schedule,” says Sandy Mazur of Spherion. “That doesn’t mean a company should opt out of creating a flexible work environment or only implement it for certain departments. It needs to be formal, consistent and fair for everyone.”

Finding a balance between flexible shifts that promote engagement and unpredictable and wildly varying shifts is good for the team and your relationship to your employees.

Next, create a clear and systematic structure

Transparency should be your buzzword as you introduce flex time to your shop or restaurant. Here’s how to make the process smooth sailing:

  • Consider a trial run first. This might be the best way to devise how well this scheduling strategy works for your business.
  • Get your strategy down. Who is eligible for flex-time? How will it be implemented? Who makes the final call when granting flex requests and checking schedules? Once you know the answer to these questions, communicate them to your staff. For instance, Australia has a standard employee-by-employee request system in place.
  • Know your limits. The National Federation of Independent Businesses suggests defining mandatory core hours in order to avoid short staffing.
  • Invest in shift scheduling software. This helps staff communicate with you and each other.
  • Encourage teamwork with an all-in approach. Hourly employees still gain a lot from working within consistent groups, so don’t skip scheduling events where the whole team can learn and bond together. In a Financial Post piece, Karen Wensley of Ernst & Young in Canada points out that flex-time goes both ways.“[E]mployees have to realize they are working as part of a team…If they want to leave early on a particular day, when the person in the next office wants to do the same, then you have a responsibility to say, ‘How can I help?’”

Take Aways

Plenty of cautionary tales exist about unscrupulous managers squeezing maximum yield out of their employees while sacrificing stability and morale. Your flex-time plan can encourage rather than discourage employee engagement with a smart mix of balance, transparency, and clear structure. When an employee can schedule shifts around school, childcare, and second jobs, he knows your business values him. In turn, you create an environment where he’s ready to help out when someone else needs a hand.

Good deeds beget good deeds. Who knew?

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