The University Record, January 30, 1995

U managers share experiences with flexible workplace

Suzanne Smith’s lecture at the seminar on flexibility in the workplace was followed by a panel of four U-M managers who talked about how flexibility has been incorporated in their units.

Douglas W. Fasing, manager for the Plant Department’s Grounds and Waste Management Services, noted how much the workplace had changed. He recalled a woman employee who 15 years ago had asked for a flexible schedule that would allow her to breastfeed her infant.

“ ‘Say What?’ was my response,” Fasing said. “They didn’t prepare me for that.” Now, however, Fasing is accustomed to receiving requests for flexible scheduling.

“We are able to accommodate quite a few of them. The restrictions are few: it can’t inhibit the services we provide or detract from the value that we had, because our purpose is to do things for people, not to them.” Fasing says there are several categories of flexibility in his area, including educational time requests, reduced scheduling for low-demand times and medical or phased retirement reduced schedules.

Laurie L. Burns, manager of user services for the Information Technology Division (ITD), pointed out that flexible scheduling is not just a women’s issue, although “President Duderstadt has, through the Michigan Agenda for Women, talked about the University of Michigan as becoming the workplace-of-choice, and this is a major piece of that.”

Burns says that ITD’s work has made it necessary to shift schedules from the normal 8-to-5 day in order to accomplish work that must be done when fewer people are using the computing system. She has provided flexible scheduling for employees for a variety of reasons, but found that when an employee was gone for an extended period of time, as in maternity or child care leave, managers tend to feel responsible for the work that needed to be done and take on more.

“The key for me,” she says, “is to instill in staff a greater sense of ownership over the work, and to empower them, let them take charge of their work.” This team concept has dramatically decreased the burden on managers to get the work done, she notes.

“The more there is a sense of team, the more individuals see themselves as a group, the more they see their ability to accomplish the work. The staff have really felt a sense of community and of camaraderie among themselves,” she says, another benefit of the team approach. “I am much less involved in dealing with the interpersonal issues that I had been.”

Robert W. Moenart, controller and director of Financial Operations, talked about the change in what was called “summer hours” by his department, which allowed employees in 1990 to come in one-half hour earlier, take half-hour lunch periods and leave one hour earlier than normal. He was been approached at the end of the summer and asked why those hours couldn’t continue.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s tradition.” He agreed to try the new schedule, and later also tried the four 10-hour shifts approach. There were some problems, he noted, in providing full coverage for the 8-to-5 hours that one unit was operating, but instead of mandating hours that staff had to work, he left the scheduling up to them&emdash;with good results.

Solutions to problems such as staff working more than 40 hours in one week and the tradition of having had a manager on-site at all times were solved by changing the old rules to fit the changing workplace, Moenart says. Benefits have been that the extended hours have been covered without having to hire additional staff.

In another unit, he says, the approach of the holiday season always heralded a backlog of work, and employees were required to work overtime the first two months of the year.

“Instead of mandating overtime,” Moenart says, “we simply tell staff that we have a number of hours that must be worked and let them make the decision about when they will work.

“If they have something scheduled for a Saturday, they just say ‘I’m not going to work next Saturday’ and they find another time to do the work. I think we ended up with a more effective workforce. They are more inclined to want to complete the work.”

Laurita Thomas, assistant director of personnel for University Hospitals, told the audience about the crisis in the nursing profession several years ago and how it prompted change in the scheduling process at the U-M Hospitals.

“The nursing crisis taught us how to be innovative and accommodating to be able to hire staff,” she says. In the Human Resources Department, nearly 35 percent of the staff are on a non-traditional schedule. Job-sharing, team-building and redesigning the work process have been accomplished and bring the department a step closer to being the workplace of choice, Thomas says. Balancing home, family and work life were at the top of the list when the Medical Center asked employees in focus groups what needed to happen to make staff view the Medical Center as the employer-of-choice.

In a question-and-answer period that followed the presentations, staff asked about such issues as comp time, equipment and home office space used in the “virtual office,” and compensation of staff who are overtime-exempt and already work 10- and 12-hour days.

Smith said that there are no clear answers to all the questions, adding that as the workplace evolves many units will need to find their own policies for flexibility.

The seminar was sponsored by the School of Business Administration and the Family Care Resources Program.