If the concept of flexible work arrangements that help employees balance work with family or personal needs is to survive the current era of worker shortages and remain available to employees at all levels of an organization, both sides will need to look at them in a new light. That's the consensus of managers, employees, and consultants who have wrestled with the question of how to make such arrangements succeed. The reason that conflict still exists: Both sides continue to "have this image of work and life as an antagonistic imbalance," suggests Arlene Johnson, senior consultant, WFD Inc. (formerly Work/Family Directions Inc.), Watertown, Mass., instead of viewing the adoption of alternate work schedules as "something that puts work and life in harmony." "The only thing that will make a dual work/life agenda work is if it makes business better at the same time it makes family life better and workers more productive," says Johnson, who spoke recently at a Work-in-America Institute Inc. round table in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Companies and workers need to ask themselves how this can serve as an impetus to making how we work better rather than just looking at how each side makes tradeoffs." The benefits to companies -- and workers -- can be enormous. Johnson points to a manufacturing company that was struggling with mandatory overtime on weekends because of high demand from customers on short notice. Taking the suggestion of its manufacturing employees, the company switched to a schedule where workers put in a full workweek over four days. That allowed the company to schedule overtime, when needed, on Fridays, and let employees save weekends for family activities and, occasionally, have a three-day weekend. Another company that has benefited by listening to its employees is Hewlett-Packard Co.For example, when competitive pressures triggered HP to set as a target two-hour turnarounds and four-hour fixes on customer service problems, it ran into two unexpected -- and unacceptable -- snags, says Ron Kegle, West Geography manager for the Americas customer service and support unit in Englewood, Calif. The unit provides on-site hardware support for HP customers. First, more work moved to after normal business hours, so "overtime was dramatically increasing," says Kegle. Second, people were transferring out of the unit because of the high probability that they would be called into work after hours and on weekends. The employees themselves worked out the solution, says Kegle. Two volunteered to go on a three-day, 12-hour schedule Friday through Sunday and work four hours on Monday morning. That gave the other customer engineers weekends off and allowed the engineers on the weekend shift to be more involved in their children's activities during the week, including one who was educating his children at home. "We reduced overtime 36%, and we were able to accommodate a growth in customer needs that was occurring at the same time without having to add more people," says Kegle. "We had the proper staff. We just didn't utilize it properly because we had had the traditional 8-to-5 mentality." Some other examples from HP:

  • Self-directed work teams in one HP financial-services center opted to switch to a four-day-week, 10-hour-day schedule to process the high number of transactions. The results: Overtime dropped 50%, workers had more "quiet" time to develop process improvements, and the number of transactions processed daily per person increased by 70%.
  • Yet another HP group cut its travel costs and decreased work/life conflicts when it started to schedule quarterly off-site meetings to start at noon. That way team members could travel in the morning and avoid an extra night away from home. The lesson in all of this is simple, says WFD's Johnson. "Do things better," she suggests. "Make work/life issues a lens for examining work processes and improving business outcomes. We must get rid of dumb work that causes frustration and steals time." Senior editor Michael A. Verespej covers human resources issues for IW.