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Ask the Expert: Do I Have to Allow Employees to Work Flexible Schedules?

By Sherri Bennett, SPHR & SHRM-CP on Feb 13, 2020
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Q: A couple of my employees have asked for flexible working arrangements. I value my employees and want to be sensitive to their requests. But, because we are a small business, their absences from our workplace could put a bigger burden on other staff. And, if I let one or two employees adopt flexible schedules, what happens when other employees start asking for flex time, too?

A: It’s not surprising you’ve gotten this request from employees. Because United States unemployment is as low as it’s been in 50 years, it’s harder than ever for businesses to find high-quality talent, giving workers more leverage to create the kinds of work schedules they want. In the 2019 Global Workspace Survey, for example, 74% of respondents said they believe flexible working has become the new normal.

how low unemployment negatively affects employers

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a flexible work schedule as any schedule that gives employees the freedom “to vary their arrival and/or departure times” outside of the traditional 40-hour, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workweek. This could include flexibility such as early arrival/early departure times, longer hours of work spread across fewer days, remote work or part-time schedules.

Surprisingly, few federal guidelines govern this issue, but, generally speaking, you are not required by law to allow employees to work flexible schedules. The exception is for a medical necessity, which then often falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Another possible exception is permitting flexibility for a parent of a child who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to take time off for meetings regarding the child’s educational needs. The law does not require this, but the DOL recently released an opinion letter that attending meetings might fall under the Family Medical Leave Act.

There also are federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against caregivers, but they apply more broadly and for longer periods of leave. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act protects men and women who need to take extended time off to care for a child or a relative. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act relates to workers over age 40 and can apply to employees with caregiver responsibilities. The District of Columbia and some states, including Alaska, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon and Maryland, have laws that exceed federal protections for caregivers.

How to effectively manage vacation requests

Although you aren’t required to permit flexible work arrangements – apart from the legal obligations mentioned above – there are reasons you may want to do so. Offering this flexibility to one or a few employees does mean generally that you’ll have to allow it for others who request it, but there’s good news: Numerous studies have shown that providing flexibility can create a work environment that benefits both employees and employers. Research demonstrates that when employees are allowed to work flexible hours or telecommute, their employers enjoy improved employee morale, retention and productivity.

You’ll need to consider the flip side, as well. Flex schedules may put a dent in communication and collaboration among employees and may diminish the social connections that naturally occur when people are together in the same workspace. Further, your industry and the type of work the employee does may affect your decision. If the employee is a shift worker or an assembly line worker, for example, a flexible work schedule likely is not an option.

It will be up to your company’s leadership – taking all these factors into consideration – to decide what type of work schedule will be most beneficial when you consider your employee base, the jobs your workers perform and your organization’s culture and goals.

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