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Commentary : It's About Time to Change Times

October 25, 1987|GARY EDSON | Gary Edson is manager of Commuter Network, the Orange County Transit District's ride-sharing department

By now, almost everyone has heard the stories about the congestion-free freeways that accompanied the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The fact that the freeways were smoothly flowing was doubly surprising after figures later released showed an increase in the number of cars using the freeways.

How did such a phenomenon occur? Quite simply: large numbers of employers offered workers an alternative to the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday.

As the Orange County Transit District (OCTD) searches for solutions to manage traffic better in the county, employers are now being asked to permanently reconsider their company's work schedules. Taking advantage of alternative work hours is one way to help spread out peak-hour traffic. But the problem is that when executives hear the term "flex-time," many shudder for fear of losing control with employees coming and going as they please. They fear productivity may go down, affecting profit. Actually, the opposite is true.

Businesses that adopt alternative work hours see such programs as low-cost, low-risk employee benefits that actually improve morale and productivity. Flexibility is built into the program with management approval.

The service day actually expands with employees present earlier than 8 a.m. or later than 5 p.m. They don't give less service, they give more. It's easier to make calls across country and get on the computer before 8 a.m. and some employees are more productive staying after 5 p.m..

The company expenses of sick leave usage, short-term absenteeism and tardiness are all reduced by use of flex-time. With lower turnover, the accompanying costs of recruiting and training are also substantially reduced.

Continental Insurance in Newport Beach went from a 70% annual turnover rate to 1% after implementing a flex-time program. And yes, traffic congestion is helped too.

Current research has shown that the use of flex-time has doubled in the last decade and seems to be rising by 1.5% each year. The important thing to remember is that an alternative work hours program can be tailor-made to suit each company's needs. At OCTD, our Commuter Network department has the expertise available to help companies design programs that will work for them. It only makes sense that not every program works for every company or department within that company.

Assistance is given by an OCTD specialist in developing an overall company policy with guidelines that supervisors may adapt to the needs of their specific work unit. Experiences of other companies help to illustrate what works and what doesn't.

There is a wealth of very practical information available for the asking. At present, the transit district is working with 12 companies to tailor schedules to their needs. We usually start with a pilot program on a small scale and expand the policy to all employees after the company gains confidence in the approach.

The momentum for the alternative work hours program is picking up speed. And why shouldn't it? It's an extremely low-cost program that benefits the company, the community and the employees. It saves all of us precious time just by rethinking how travel time is used. When people have some say in choosing work hours, time is saved that otherwise would have been wasted on congested freeways. In addition, the stress of commuting is reduced so that when employees arrive at work, their jobs can be addressed with more personal energy.

It may sound too good to be true, but little by little, many innovative Orange County employers are rethinking work hour scheduling. The make-up of the work force has changed. There are now more working parents than ever before, which creates a need for alternative hours to coincide with child-care facilities.

It is indeed time to move away from the "sacred" 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday.

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