Working With Flexible Shop Hours

Our shop is located right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay Area, a fast-paced, urban setting, where you dodge the worsening traffic both to and from work. The high cost of living here means many couples need two incomes to survive, and that, in turn, often means balancing child care and personal life with the demands of a job.

We've realized over the past few years that if we are to find and keep a stable and dedicated staff, our firm has to be flexible in our approach to work hours. While the basic requirement at our shop is 40 hours a week, there are a few employees who work a tad less; for instance, one of our best project managers is a single mom bringing up two kids, so by mutual agreement, her hours are reduced.

Most employees who work on the shop floor have chosen to work our optional 10-hour day, four-day a week schedule. The foreman and I keep a close eye on everyone to make sure they can handle the extra hours.

We split the crew, so that there are people in the shop on both Mondays and Fridays, but the majority work the first part of the week, which allows for a three-day weekend every week. We try to start everyone at the same time every day, 6:00 a.m., before the traffic hits full stride. We finish at 4:30 p.m., hitting the freeways ahead of the regular nine-to-fivers.

The hours our office staff keeps are more varied, but again, we keep the 40-hour week standard. Start and finish times are not as rigidly set, but we've found that it's good if people can set up a regular routine so we can work around that. We know Mike is always in at 7:30 a.m. after he's dropped his daughter off at school, while Michael doesn't like to start until 8:00 a.m., that early morning java in hand. . .

The argument for
From a shop employee's point of view, flexibility in working conditions is one of the main attractions in working at our company. People want more time for themselves, and a four-day work week can go a long way toward improving the quality of life.

Employee loyalty, combined with a low turnover, will make your shop stronger, and some leniency in the way you view staff start and stop times will go a long way with your employees. The key here is to be clear with people you still expect those 40 hours. You may want to say that, in return for your flexibility, you expect even more effort when the person is at work.

Most people are more efficient when they are encouraged to work when they want to. There's one detailer at our shop who has child-care issues some weekdays and has to leave early. Occasionally, he'll come in on Saturdays to make up the time; the truth is, he gets far more drawing and cut-listing done on those quiet Saturdays than he does on the weekdays.'

Our financial controller doubles as our office manager, and we've built her work hours around traffic and her daughter's school schedule. She's set up on her home computer, as well, so she can work out of the house if the need arises.

In general, our shop is always aiming for higher productivity, both in the office and on the floor, and when people can work more on their own terms, not just the company's, we find that things run more efficiently.

The 10-hour, four-day work week on the shop floor means we can stagger machining time as well, giving us extended hours on equipment 50 hours a week instead of 40.

Our ability to do some overtime is also enhanced by the 10-hour day. People are more available'
to work an extra four or six hours on their day off, without it significantly reducing or ruining their weekend.

The case against
Scheduling can be tough if flexibility is not controlled; the key is to know ahead of time who's coming in when. At our shop, we insist on a voice-mail message if an employee can't make it in at his or her regular time.

Unpredictability can cause significant challenges for management. When you're counting on Ted to finish up the pantry cabinets first thing in the morning and he doesn't call and let you know he's going to be late until he already is late that's a problem. There are employees who may take advantage of your leniency, too, so again, you need to be very clear that your flexibility is a two-way street.

Keeping track of who's going to be where when is a management challenge, but not impossible, especially if you know in advance. If it's a matter of different start and finish times, you'll be able to deal with it. Again, the key is knowing about it in advance.

It's also important to note that working at home doesn't always work for everyone. Realize that it can be very difficult for you as a manager to measure in-home office productivity.

In addition, you have to keep up with the labor laws. Federal and state regulations can sometimes be contradictory and different, and you may be required to have employee ballots before changing your work hours. You may want to contact your local EDD office or get professional legal labor advice if you're considering hours that are out of the norm.

Tailoring a shop
You may require core times in the work day when people are all there together. However, think about whether everyone needs to start and end their day at exactly the same time.

Some shops insist that their key employees be reachable at all times by cell phone, pager or radio so that anything lost by giving flexibility can be offset by the enhanced communication. If your staff is contactable, perhaps they don't have to be right by your side all of the time.

The ability to change working hours is part of everyone's future, so it should be on your shop's radar screen. It might be wise to start slow, as we have, with our office staff. If you have good people, you'll want to retain them, and giving them some ability to control their hours will make them feel more empowered about their job and the shop they work for.'

Flexibility may be just as important a 'perk' as health insurance to some employees, and as much a necessity for others.

Next Column: Improving Your Shop's Scheduling