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Weighing the Alternatives
Changing Work Schedules:
A Many-Splendored (and Splintered) Thing

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Is there anybody working here who wouldn't like an extra day off every week or so? Weekends are grand, of course, but if we had a weekday off, some of us think, we could get a head start on that seemingly endless line at the bank. We could take our rightful turn as Class Parent at Junior's pre-K, avoid that hellish Monday morning commute, log in some volunteer work we've always vowed to try or simply accomplish the myriad other tasks best done during "regular" work hours Monday through Friday. We wouldn't even mind working an extra hour or two each day to earn the day off.


These thoughts are certainly not new. In fact, according to a 1994 NIH Policy Manual by the Office of Human Resources Management, such meanderings of the mind -- formally dubbed "alternative work schedules" -- have been under consideration for government employees for more than a generation now.

Nothing New Under the Sun

"Since the mid-1960's," says the manual, "there has been a growing interest in nonstandard, more flexible work hours to relieve traffic congestion, improve productivity, expand hours of service to the public, and provide greater employment opportunities for those who cannot work standard fixed work hours." In 1994, spurred by a National Performance Review recommendation, President Clinton championed AWS in a memo, calling for "a more family-friendly workplace to be created by expanding opportunities for federal workers to participate in flexible work arrangements consistent with the mission of the executive branch to serve the public."

A number of NIH'ers, however, had already heeded the call.

"I began working AWS in 1990," recalls Beth Rosso, an administrative officer at NLM for the past 10 years. "I think it has changed the way I do my job, improving the organization of my 9-hour work days. It gives me the ability to prepare for my day off. Small segments of annual leave for personal business, or sick leave for doctor's appointments, have all but been eliminated because I can schedule two or three appointments on one day off."

For NIAMS Administrative Officer Andrea Ricche, it was just a matter of formalizing in October 1992 an arrangement made necessary by her daily commute. "My husband works downtown," she explains. "We carpool to the NIH campus and he takes the subway. I was always here early and staying later than my schedule. When I was offered AWS, it just made sense. I find that the extra hour per day allows me the time to finish tasks that otherwise would have had to wait until the next day."

NLM's Dorothy White says AWS helped her relieve stress.

"I chose AWS because it allows me to plan and schedule appointments during normal work time and know that I will be available at a designated time," adds NLM Cataloguer Dorothy White. "It has not changed how I do my job. Since I am at work for 9 hours, I have no problems coordinating with my coworkers. Scheduling meetings has not posed a problem because the staff is aware of my day off. My quality of worklife has improved because I don't have to take as much annual leave and there is less stress."

AWS Picks Up Speed...

In 1997, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala encouraged AWS in her Quality of Worklife Initiative. Just months ago, the President directed agencies to review work scheduling practices again "to make maximum use of existing flexibilities to allow federal employees to plan and take time off to perform community service as the public business permits."

Boosted by support from the highest levels, the program quickly gained momentum. Most employees who had changed their work schedules sung its praises, and many workers not offered the option wondered to supervisors, "Why can't I?"

Notwithstanding all the endorsements, widely offering AWS can present some big problems, explains Marvene Horwitz, OHRM deputy director and head of NIH's quality of worklife committee.

"The topic is a bit complicated," she says. "There are the conflicting sides of employees wanting flexibility and managers feeling that people aren't available to get the work done, although there are many managers who handle it well. The QWL committee is looking for ways to publicize these tools for managers and employees, but we also want both sides to understand the other's needs."

What is important to keep in mind is that AWS is an employee benefit, not an entitlement. It is a tool managers can use to accomplish certain goals: enhance customer service by extending hours of availability, relieve traffic congestion during peak commuting times, relieve on-campus parking shortages, reduce tardiness and absenteeism, improve staff morale, and help employees balance work and family responsibilities. It is up to managers to administer the program efficiently and to make sure AWS does not have an adverse impact on NIH's mission. It can be a difficult call.

...But Not for Everyone

"Our office first implemented AWS in a 6-month trial period about 5 years ago," recalls Michael Rosenthal, NICHD personnel officer. "We tried it again, in another 3-month pilot, about 3 years ago. Unfortunately, after assessing its advantages and disadvantages, I decided not to implement it in my office on a permanent basis. The major problems we encountered were two: First, the relatively small size [seven workers] of our office made it difficult to achieve optimal staff coverage when the 'AWS day-off' was added to the normal mix of sick and annual leave usage and staff being away from the office at meetings or training. Second, our office is service-oriented. Our customers were not very pleased when a staff member to whom they needed to speak was out on his or her 'AWS day-off' when the customer needed information or advice. When the pilot ended and I decided not to implement AWS, I believe that the staff was disappointed, but I believe they understood the basis upon which my decision was made."

Veronica Vasquez of NLM recently began working an AWS schedule. She says it's working well so far.

Managers and supervisors are not the only ones who may have troubles with AWS. Sometimes coworkers who don't use AWS can end up holding down the fort shorthandedly (usually Mondays and Fridays, by far the most popular AWS days off). As some employees point out, if a person's job is such that others must constantly "cover" for him/her on the day off, then maybe AWS is not a good idea for the worker.

"I think AWS can be a great tool for rewarding hardworking employees," says Ricche. "It shows that one is trusted enough to be able to balance day-to-day assignments with the day off. I don't believe that every position is right for AWS nor is every person -- it is strictly up to the supervisor and the individual to figure out if it works for them."

Alternatives to the Alternatives
Managers Find Creative Ways to Reward Staff

Just because their two experiments with alternative work schedules did not pan out, that does not mean the NICHD Human Resources Management Branch stopped considering ways to improve the quality of their worklife. Just the opposite, in fact. Michael Rosenthal, NICHD personnel officer for the past 16 years and supervisor of six other staff members, tried offering his employees AWS in two separate pilots. It just wasn't feasible for the office, which is responsible for providing advice, guidance and operational support functions to institute managers, supervisors, and employees on human resource management issues.

NICHD Personnel Officer Michael Rosenthal worked around challenges posed by AWS.

"Our office exists to serve the employees of NICHD in meeting their needs for human resource information and services," he says, explaining that person-to-person contact is a critical element of the office's mission. Customers, he continues, were not very happy to find their consultants unavailable due to AWS days off. Still wanting to offer some QWL benefits to his staff, however, Rosenthal tried something else.

"We have implemented a flexible workplace program," he explains. Under this program, personnel specialists, on an intermittent basis, may request that they be allowed to work at home on activities that require concentrated thought -- evaluation of job applications, for example -- without the interruptions that are typical in an office setting. On the day when the specialist works at home, he or she must be available during business hours for telephone and email communication with office staff and with employees in the organizations that he or she services.

"We have found this program to be a highly productive (and employee friendly) way to accomplish work activities," he concludes. In addition, he said, some staff members work schedules that deviate from the traditional 8:30 to 5 and may earn and use compensatory time to accommodate family responsibilities, part-time employment, and commuting problems. " I believe that AWS can be a highly effective mechanism to accommodate employee needs. However, the organization's mission and size are important factors for supervisors to think about when considering implementing AWS."

Investing in an Alternative

Marj Cahn calls herself a "typical baby boomer," but her work schedule is anything but typical. Since July 1995, she has combined some of the best family-friendly work arrangements -- alternative work schedules, flexiplace and telecommuting -- to carve out her own at-home, but at-work niche.

Six or 7 days a month, Cahn can be found at her desk on campus in Bldg. 38, the National Library of Medicine. She also travels to meetings at other locations 2 or 3 days a month. The rest of the month, she conducts her work for NLM's National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology from her home office in Annapolis.

A self-described "typical baby boomer," Marj Cahn swears by AWS.

"I now have a better computer at home than at the office," Cahn says on a recent Thursday -- her usual day in Bethesda. "Anything that is on my hard drive here can be accessed on my computer at home. In addition, this office computer can be used as a server for the one at home. I can print, fax, email, and anything else that I'd do at the office."

A member of the "sandwich generation" who cares for an aged parent and who has a 13-year-old at home, Cahn has heavily invested personal funds in her AWS arrangement. In addition to the significant upgrades to her home computer-fax-printer system, she also has funded installation of two additional phones lines in her house, so that NLM coworkers and others who need to reach her while she is working can do so without incurring long distance phone charges. Those charges alone add up to $200 a month.

"But it's worth it to me," she doesn't hesitate to point out. "And, I save some by having reduced my commuting charges."

Although advantageous for some, AWS is not for everyone, Cahn admits. "I couldn't do this without the self-directed, self-motivated people I work with," she says. "If I had to stand around and watch over shoulders, I absolutely could not do this. It took all of us some time to adjust. At first, they'd worry about disturbing me at home. I had to keep reminding them: 'You aren't disturbing me at home. I'm at work. I'm not right across the hall, but you can always pick up the phone and give me a call.'"

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