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Building a High-Performance Work Force

Building a High-Performance Work Force

The quality of work life can be measured in part by the amount of time spent on the job and the flexibility of that time. If the income goal of workers has always been more, the counterpart goal for hours worked has always been less. Thus, the mark of improvement in worker welfare is reflected not only by higher real wages but by a shorter workweek as well.

Where more than one shift is employed, the part of the day to be worked has also been a matter of concern. The inconvenience of working nights has long been offset by premium pay, as has the inconvenience of working weekends and holidays.

Today, as a result of the enormous gains made in shortening work hours, there is increasing interest in the pattern of time worked. The employee interest in working fewer hours has not disappeared, but in popular debate it has been overshadowed in the 1970s by the interest, first, in the four-day week and, more recently, in flexible time.

Management has taken the initiative in experimenting with these different time patterns primarily in an effort to determine whether a more flexible approach to the hours of work would payoff in lower absenteeism, higher worker morale, and more efficient use of plant and equipment-with a resultant payoff in higher productivity

Proponents of the four-day week expected that it would take hold and spread rapidly, but available evidence suggests that although there was a rapid increase from 1970 to 1973, there was little growth in succeeding years. To what extent small changes in this trend may be due to short-run economic conditions rather than to longer run changes in preferences and habits is uncertain. But at least there is no evidence yet to indicate a great swing to the four days week. Additional firms have taken it up, but it has been estimated that up to 15 percent of the firms that tried it have dropped the experiment.

Fewer than 2 percent of full-time employees work a shorter than five-day week, with 1.1 percent working a four-day week.

From a managerial standpoint, what factors are likely to be important in determining whether a shift to a four-day week is desirable?

• In some industries there is a saving in startup and close time, which becomes a smaller portion of total time. There may also be other efficiencies in scheduling.

• Where absenteeism is higher than average, the three-day weekend may be sufficiently attractive to workers to reduce the unscheduled absences. The evidence on this is not conclusive, however.

• Since the four-day schedule offers a 20-percent reduction in commuter time and commuting costs, lunches, and other work-related expenses as well as a 50-percent increase in the length of the weekend, the short workweek can be used as an incentive to obtain worker cooperation on other issues or merely as a boost to worker morale.

• From a public relations standpoint, the shift to a four-day week may help a firms local image as a progressive employer. It can appear not only as sensitive to the needs of employees, but as concern for saving energy and reducing congestion.

A shift to a four-day workweek is not without its risks however, not the least of which is the possibility of some disruption in work and the eventual failure of the effort. These risks are largely the converse of the statements favoring the shorter week. Worker fatigue may increase, and with it the absenteeism rate may stay the same or increase; quality may decline and the rate of output lags. The lure of greater productivity may prove to be illusory. Furthermore, some management spokesmen have worried that the acceptance of a four-day week, even if initially it is 40 hours, may speed up the trend toward a four-day week of 8 hours a day.

Early evidence suggests some gain in productivity. However, what is less certain is the significance of these gains. Are they attributable to temporary advantages in recruiting and holding experienced workers who are attracted by the savings in commuting and the gain of a longer weekend? If so, are they subject to competitive pressures that may make them short-lived? Are they attributable to the altered work schedule itself, to a Hawthorne effect, or mere novelty?

As yet it is too early to assess the effect of the four-day week on the firm because there have not been enough experiments; they have not been distributed widely enough by industry and location; and they have not been in effect long enough to enable analysts to differentiate short-run effects from lasting ones.

Flexible working time introduces a far more dramatic element into the workplace. Its appeal is its attack on rigidity which is as much a factor in the four-day week as in the five-day week. What flexible time offers workers is an opportunity to set their schedules in accord with their needs-to take care of personal business and their personal preferences so long as they work an agreed number of hours a month or, in some instances, each week. In some work situations there is generally a prescribed core time, usually in the morning and early afternoon, when all workers are required to be present. But in the most advanced forms of flexible time, pioneered in Europe, workers have considerable latitude in determining on which days as well as which hours to work.

The managerial rationale for flexible time is higher productivity. Two types of efficiency are sought. One is a reflection of individual differences. If, as some experts believe, workers perform differently at different times of the day, the freedom they are given to select their work times will result in higher performance on the job. The other type of efficiency is the reduction in unintentional tardiness resulting from delays in getting to work, longer lunch hours to take care of personal business, and so on-minor infractions that may not merit disciplinary actions but which overall could result in a substantial loss for a firm-what has been called time lost from erosion rather than formal agreement. In addition, there is the expectation that the greater autonomy given workers to regulate their own working lives will payoff in better morale and higher productivity. Such changes in morale and productivity may be achieved through, for example, the elimination of one of management prerogatives and a potential source of friction management’s ability to decide its own work schedule.

Evidence on the success of flexible time is subject to the same caveats as those stated above for the four-day workweek. Evidence is limited in scope and time. But the tentative results do seem more conclusive. Hours worked / hours paid for has increased, largely because of a reduction in tardiness and unrecorded leave and sick leave; absenteeism has declined. There is evidence, too, that workers tend to leave when work is slack and to stay and work longer when the work load is heavy.

Flexible time , on the other hand, does place additional burdens on workers and management. Record keeping, for example, becomes a bigger problem. Extended hours of daily operation may be required in some firms, thus contributing to higher operating and maintenance costs.

Annual vacations are about half as long on the average in the United States as in Europe-two weeks as compared with four weeks in France, for example. Such variability may someday extend to work patterns over a lifetime. The sabbatical academic life are being tried in some industrial settings and government employment. Early retirement has opened opportunities for second careers to some employees.

Thus, workers may be attracted to part-time work or work of a different character that offers greater satisfactions-or at least a trade of old frustrations for new ones. New patterns of education and training also fit into this more flexible approach because of the need for retraining occasioned by rapid changes in productive processes and administrative organization. The old pattern of learn first and work later may be less dominant as a pattern of life in industrial society.

In any event, tomorrow managers will have to take a broader view of time patterns in the workplace than the traditional one associated with the five-day, 40-hour week, two-week vacation pattern that has simplified life in so many work settings.