Research shows the success of a bacterial community depends on its shape.
This is the third in a series of articles that will be published periodically to highlight new ways in which people are working at MIT.
The concept of flexibility in work arrangements is being raised more frequently -- in major newspapers and magazines and even on national news programs. The focus is often on the desire by employees to find a better balance between work and the other parts of their lives.
And more companies are realizing that offering "family-friendly" work options can help to attract and retain good employees -- especially in a strong economy with plentiful jobs. Improvements in computer and telecommunications technology also play a role by allowing more options for where and when work can be done.
MIT has had a policy about accommodating alternative schedules for many years (see section 3.1.1 of the Personnel Policy Manual), and this article will highlight the topic and introduce a few of the MIT staff members who have negotiated for alternative work arrangements, both full- and part-time.
"MIT needs to continue to provide greater flexibility for our employees," said Joan Rice, vice president for human resources. "A nine-to-five schedule simply doesn't work for everyone, so we need to help people find alternatives that will work for them and for their departments."
An employee's need for job flexibility may be in response to outside interests, family responsibilities or lifestyle concerns (such as decreasing the time spent commuting). Part-time work, including job sharing, is the answer for some people, but it's not a financial option or personal preference for everyone. Alternative schedules (flex-time) and/or telecommut-ing (flex-place) provide additional options.
A different schedule could involve coming in and leaving earlier, like a workday of 7am-3pm, or starting and leaving later, like 10am-6pm. Another approach is to compress a full-time schedule into fewer days per week (perhaps working eight or nine longer days every two weeks).
Telecommuting involves doing all or, more often, part of your regular work at home, connected to the office via computer, fax and/or telephone. Telecommuting not only reduces wear and tear on a car but also avoids the time and stress of traveling to work. (One telecommuter noted another advantage: she hasn't had to buy new clothes in years.)
Several MIT offices provide information for those exploring alternative work arrangements, including the Personnel Office (for MIT policies) and the Benefits Office (for impact on benefits). The Family Resource Center (FRC) sponsors a workshop on "Negotiating Job Flexibility" covering MIT and federally mandated leave policies and valuable tips on developing a detailed, individual proposal for situations not covered by a leave policy. This workshop will be offered again on Tuesday, Dec. 1 from noon-1:30pm in Rm 16-151. E-mail email@example.com or call x3-1592 to preregister or get more information.
Of course, some positions are better suited to telecommuting and flexible arrangements than others. For example, jobs that require significant amounts of writing, research or programming may be more workable than positions supervising a staff or providing face-to-face customer service. Sometimes employees will need to change jobs if flexibility is not possible in their current position.
As the FRC workshop materials point out, flexible arrangements at MIT "are a result of individual negotiations between employees and their supervisors, when it is mutually beneficial." For instance, adjusting one person's schedule to accommodate his or her personal needs could also improve coverage by extending an office's business hours. This could be a "win" for both the individual and the office.
Employees and their supervisors may need to use new skills to make a flexible work arrangement effective. For example, they must deal with the potential questions of co-workers, and they need to plan how they will communicate and assess the work, especially if the employee telecommutes. It may be advisable to test a new arrangement for a trial period that includes specific evaluation points. A flexible agreement could be short-term or perhaps vary throughout the year, depending on the seasonal workload of an area. It's also best for an employee to have child-care arrangements in place even for the time she or he is working at home.
For telecommuters, practical considerations like who will pay for an extra phone line and the necessary equipment also need to be resolved. At MIT, these questions are handled locally and depend on the particular situation.
Several people interviewed for this article believe that having a solid track record in their department contributed to being allowed to try a different schedule. Also, there was unanimous agreement that employees should be flexible about their flexibility. For instance, if they are really needed in the office for a meeting when they normally would be working at home, it's essential that they come in. They also may need to attend conferences or training classes that fall on days when they would not usually be at work.
However, these MIT employees put such value on the alternative arrangements they've negotiated that they are very willing to make adjustments that help ensure continued flexibility in their jobs.
Following are some specific examples of MIT staff members who have negotiated flexible work schedules. Each of their supervisors is pleased with the results of these customized arrangements and was glad that they were able to accommodate the needs of valued employees.
ONE DAY IN THE OFFICE
Ginny Hillen is a full-time senior analyst/programmer in the Personnel Office. She provides enhancements and overall support for Personnel's human resource computer system. Her current schedule involves coming into the office on Mondays and telecommuting from home the rest of the week.
Prior to this telecommuting arrangement, Ms. Hillen had negotiated for a flexible schedule in the office, beginning her work at 7am, simply because she is a morning person who is most productive early in the day. "The flex hours saved travel time and also allowed me to be on duty and have start-up problems solved before anyone else got to work," she said.
The trial period for the early-hours schedule worked so well that her supervisor, Claire Paulding, asked if Ms. Hillen would like to try something which was then even more unusual -- telecommuting. The Personnel Office was running out of space, and Ms. Hillen was more than willing to do her computer work from home. "We can always reach Ginny by phone or e-mail," Ms. Paulding said, "and I think she produces even more work being at home, perhaps because there are fewer interruptions." When Ms. Hillen comes in on Mondays for meetings, she uses whatever desk space is vacant.
AFTER MATERNITY LEAVE
Christine Cavanna, a senior financial business analyst in Information Systems, now works a full-time schedule that consists of telecommuting on Monday and Friday and working in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. She is involved in projects such as contract negotiations for long-distance telephone rates as well as financial and administrative work.
While she was on maternity leave, Ms. Cavanna developed and submitted a work proposal for the future that outlined various flexible options and the benefits and barriers to each of them for herself and her department. She had agreed to return to full-time work after her leave, so no decision was made right away. However, other changes in the office necessitated some creative staffing options, and Ms. Cavanna was able to try a part-time telecommuting arrangement, with three days in the office and one at home.
She noted that one of the challenges of her current full-time schedule is helping staff to understand that they shouldn't hesitate to contact her when she's working at home. She intends to look into the idea of having her MIT phone number ring at home when she's working there to help resolve that issue.
Another administrative staff member who telecommutes for part of her full-time schedule is Laura Lucas, training coordinator for the Department of Facilities (formerly Physical Plant). She assesses learning opportunities for the department and implements training programs that are aligned with the organization's mission and vision.
Ms. Lucas noted that telecommuters need to be technically astute (or become that way) because they are pretty much on their own if they have computer problems while working unusual hours.
Two other employees, both with young children, have arranged part-time positions. Elizabeth Gift is a research specialist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Her 60 percent appointment involves lab work done at MIT, and writing and literature searches that can be done at home. She develops protocols for experiments that are carried out by students, and also helps design and implement programs used to control experiments and gather data.
Ms. Gift preferred a part-time schedule so she could spend more time with her two young children, and the availability of a flexible arrangement is a major reason she decided to stay at MIT.
Another part-time staff member is Ellen Finnie Duranceau, assistant acquisitions librarian for digital resources in the MIT Libraries. She has a 75 percent appointment and works three longer days at MIT with some extra work done at home. Her current position involves the acquisition of digital resources, mostly web-based databases, as well as web journals.
"When I became a mother, it was clear to me that I couldn't work full-time and also be satisfied that I was meeting my daughter's needs, or my own needs to be with her," Ms. Duranceau said. "I really wanted to stay at MIT and was thrilled that that was possible through the creation of my part-time schedule."
Alternative working arrangements that are carefully planned and evaluated can benefit both employees and their departments. And if national trends are any indication, the use of both flexible schedules and telecommuting is likely to grow at MIT in the future.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 4, 1998.