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The high-potential ultimatum

5 min read


These days you can’t go a week without hearing about the virtues of flexible schedules. They greatly reduce absenteeism and environmental impact, and spur faster company growth.

As the workforce becomes more and more mobile, the 9-to-5 grind is becoming less and less attractive. But for every company that gets lauded for instituting a four-day work week or allowing employees to make their own schedules, there are hundreds of “in-between” companies that hear the benefits loud and clear, but are unable to affect a major policy change for various reasons.

Working 9 to 5

Case in point: We send thousands of products to our customers each month (the core of our business), and we are beholden to the 9-5 expectancy of shipping providers. Could we institute a four-day work week for our office workers? It would mean re-examining how we do business on a fundamental level, and not just with shipping — the majority of our customers work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday as well, and we end up basing project-management expectations, customer service schedules and team meetings on their availability. A four-day work week sounds amazing, but it’s not always the best fit for everyone.

Yet despite our company policy, flexible work schedules are the policy of the 21st-century worker, and we have to adapt, not the other way around. In situations like ours, sweeping policy change is not the most viable option, so we cultivate what I like to call the high-potential ultimatum. It’s something you might have done before. It’s when you go to your boss and say, “I need x to be happy at my job.” That x can be a work-from-home day, a remote setup or anything similar to balance work and life.

Striking a balance

We have no formal policy for how to deal with these requests; it is left up to managers to sort it out on a case-by-case basis, and each one is built on trust and judged by its own merits. Around 90% of our employees work traditional schedules, and the rest have slightly tweaked schedules to account for things like childcare, college classes, and those who simply have trouble fitting into the 9-to-5 mold. By bending our policy where necessary we create an informal policy to fill the need, and it’s a win/win because it’s done in a measured and thoughtful way that doesn’t disrupt our core business.

Here are some tips I’ve gathered on dealing with the high potential ultimatum in the workplace:

  • Flexibility is more important than policy: Each employee that works from home saves an organization $13,000 per year. Flexible scheduling has also been shown to reduce absenteeism by 25%. No matter what your company policy is, being flexible is almost always the better route for everyone.
  • Keep an open mind to employee needs: 32% of your employees are night owls, meaning they reach their mental peak later in the day. Creative types sometimes need solitude to do their best work, and eccentrics may have strange rituals. Everyone works differently, so be open to odd requests.
  • Weigh what you are willing to deal with against keeping the employee: Act as if you will lose the employee if you can’t make it happen, but also consider how the change will impact yourself and the rest of the office. It is OK to say “no” as long as you can explain yourself thoughtfully.
  • Don’t take anything for granted: A colleague of mine had a five-day-a-week job she knew she could do in four days a week. When she approached her bosses, they approved her four-day week, along with a 20% pay cut. Murky policy means it can backfire too, so stay aware.

Hidden bonus

Staying flexible also makes recruiting much easier on us. By offering remote positions we can fill them faster from a nationwide pool of talent, and telework has hidden productivity benefits to boot. Citrip, a Chinese travel website, conducted a study where they sent half of their staff to work at home for nine months and compared their productivity levels to their office-bound counterparts. They found that their teleworkers completed 13.5% more calls, the equivalent of an extra work day per week.

The future of work

Flexible schedules are the future of work, and the high-potential ultimatum needs to be a part of the workplace conversation. Employers can no longer afford to hide behind policy. We’re transitioning between the old way of doing things and the new, and many companies find themselves having to adopt informal policies, like us. Change is always a tumultuous process, but seeing as the number of teleworkers in America will more than double by 2016, it’s also a necessity.

Cord Himelstein is vice president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina.

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