Introduction to the New World of Flexwork
Flexwork has long been a component of Harvard’s workforce practices. When implemented by Schools, departments and units as appropriate to their local business needs, flexwork becomes a strategic tool to achieve institutional goals, empower employees to do their best work and to foster engagement. Harvard is committed to implementing flexwork arrangements that support:
- A high-performance, results-based work environment where highly engaged individuals, groups, and managers can thrive;
- Business and academic continuity in the case of disruptions caused by factors such as weather, construction, or a public-health emergency; and
- The University’s sustainability goals and commitment to employee wellbeing.
The onset of the coronavirus public-health emergency has raised the profile and accelerated the pace of departmental adoption of flexwork, which underscores the need for employees and managers alike to become familiar with the basic tenets of flexwork at Harvard. Below you will find the basic definitions of the components of flexwork, and six key principles of flexwork at Harvard, updated for the current circumstances.
Flexwork refers to flexible work arrangements that vary from the standard 9-to-5, in-the-office approach. They typically include flexibility of time and/or place. A shared understanding of key terms and their definitions is critical since misunderstandings can lead to confusion, conflict or missed opportunities. Managers and employees should take some time to review and get aligned on a common vocabulary so they can effectively communicate about a potential or current flexwork arrangement as we settle into widespread remote work. Refer to the Coronavirus Workplace Policies for more information.
- Remote Work: Employees perform all of their job functions off-campus, typically at home.
Telework: Employees work part of the standard workweek at a location other than the designated worksite, such as at a home office. This group includes people who must be on campus for some amount of time either regularly or periodically but can also perform some portion of their work remotely.
Note: Before returning to any work on campus, departments should ensure they take required COVID-19 safety training on the Harvard Training Portal and have a baseline viral test.
- Flextime: Employees work a standard full-time or part-time work week with start and end times that differ from the regularly scheduled workday. This could also include a split schedule where the employee works a full 7, 7.5, or 8-hour day in two or more periods. (Ex. 6-10 AM, and 4-8 PM).
- Compressed Work Week: Full-time employees compress a full-time workload to complete all job responsibilities into fewer than five days per week (usually completing one week’s work in four days, known as a “4/5” schedule) or in fewer than ten days over two weeks (usually completing two weeks’ work in nine days, or “9/10”). Compressed workweeks, in any configuration, bring special challenges. It is best to begin with what you might consider a trial period to determine operational feasibility and identify potential payroll complications for over-time eligible employees. Moreover, because exempt employees are paid to complete their assigned work rather than by the number of hours worked, compressed workweek schedules should be structured around outcomes and deliverables, which may vary from week to week.
- Reduced Hours: A form of temporary part-time work in which an employee reduces the number of hours of employment from their regular full-time or part-time schedule, either working some portion of every day or fewer than five days per week, with reduced job responsibilities. Salary and some benefits are pro-rated.
- Job Sharing: A form of regular part-time work in which two employees share the responsibilities of one full-time position (FTE) with salary and some benefits shared/pro-rated. The division of hours and responsibilities between job sharing partners can vary.
Note: Employees may combine arrangements, for example: working from home full-time (remote work) and adjusting their hours to differ from standard schedules such as 6 AM – 2 PM (flextime).
Flexwork has been available and utilized by many employees for years. For others, it is a new and necessary way of working. Harvard has updated the six basic principles of flexwork to reflect these transformative times. The principles are intended to ensure an equitable process for all employees, support business objectives, and create a work environment that supports both the University and our employees’ needs.
- Defining the arrangement using the Flexwork Form is encouraged, but not required: Previously, Harvard had required employees to submit a written proposal to propose flexwork arrangements. In light of the pandemic, employees who are able to work remotely are not required to submit a proposal; instead, staff and managers are encouraged to have frequent and thoughtful conversations about how, when, what and where job functions will be completed. Employees and managers are encouraged to use this to guide them as they discuss, agree to, and, when appropriate, document their approach to work. These practices help set expectations and help with planning both on personal and business levels.
- The process is equitable: Even if remote work is temporarily the standard for those whose jobs allow it, there will still be situations in which employees or managers want to make adjustments to their on-campus/hybrid/off-campus status, or their schedules, or both. It is the manager’s role to evaluate the team’s work and prioritize what must be completed and by whom. It is essential that managers work with their employees objectively and fairly to ensure an equitable process when approving new or changing flexwork arrangements. Given the new reality of such widespread work from home, personal circumstances will indeed factor into some decisions, and outcomes will not be the same for everyone. However, the process by which flexwork arrangements are assessed is most fair when it is consistent and transparent.
- Decisions are without bias or favoritism: It is critical to remove personal bias from flexwork discussions and decisions. Previously, Harvard’s flexwork guidelines emphasized that the manager should not ask about an individual’s personal circumstances or base their approval or denial of a flexwork arrangement on the employee’s reason for the request. The principle of respecting an employee’s privacy and evaluating a proposal on its business merits holds true during the COVID-19 crisis. The uncertainty of child care, schools and elder care services mean, however, that some employees must balance work and family responsibilities in ways that bring these issues to the forefront to a new degree. Managers are encouraged to work with their employees to find creative ways to accomplish job responsibilities, along with personal responsibilities, whenever possible. Framing this as a mutual responsibility to address important demands on both sides of the employer-employee equation will encourage honest and practical conversations. It is wise to touch base with local HR to ensure that new arrangements make sense in the context of local policies and practices.
- Flexwork is job-appropriate: Flexwork may not be suitable for every job. Historically, many types of jobs have been seen as requiring employees to be onsite full-time or at regularly scheduled times. Due to the current circumstances, however, employees and managers are finding new and innovative ways to accomplish job responsibilities flexibly and to determine which tasks must be accomplished on campus and which can be done off-campus, sometimes adopting a hybrid approach.
- Flexwork has a net-neutral or net-positive effect: Under optimal conditions, once approved and implemented, flexwork should have either a net-positive or net-neutral effect on business results and the work environment. In other words, the same work is getting accomplished at another time, in another place, or in another way, and it is having a positive effect or, in some cases, a mixed effect. By that, we mean that, on balance, the arrangement does not have an overall negative impact on the team or the work. When social infrastructures are disrupted, however, managers should empower employees to explore pragmatic approaches to accomplishing as much as possible when working remotely, and to understand what other options are available, should the arrangement become untenable (see, for example, Use of Sick Time and Dependent Care Sick Time.)
- Flexwork is responsive: Flexwork arrangements are meant to be responsive to the changing needs of the workplace and should be reviewed and updated both as needs change and, at a minimum, annually. In typical times, a trial period is encouraged, and flexwork arrangements should not be considered permanent. Today, Harvard’s workforce is continually adjusting to the unpredictable evolution of this public health crisis. Employees and managers should engage in frequent and thoughtful communication around emerging trade-offs, as the public health landscape and personal circumstances and business needs evolve.