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October 8, 2011

Turck Inc., a manufacturer of automation equipment, is considering allowing its front-line factory workers to do something unlikely: work from home.

The Plymouth, Minn., company, which has 400 workers, has been seeking ways to give its employees more control over their schedules. One idea, allowing workers to do some tasks from home—a white-collar perk that has largely eluded factory workers—could help keep retention and employee-satisfaction rates high, the company says.

“We have a lot of products where literally you just need to sit there and put a label on. Honestly, it can be done anywhere,” says Dee Comeau, a production supervisor.

Companies in industries that rely heavily on hourly or low-wage workers, such as manufacturing, retail, food service, hospitality, health care and call centers, are exploring ways to provide more scheduling flexibility and control to a population that has rarely been offered such workplace benefits.

Some companies, such as health-care provider Kaiser Permanente and hotelier Marriott International, have
implemented a range of innovative policies for their hourly staffers, such as providing paid time off in shorter, part-day increments, so workers can manage doctor or school appointments without having to take an entire day off. They are also providing more leeway on start and end times—allowing workers to shift their start time earlier to be available for a school pickup, for instance.

Some firms are also giving workers more lead time on their schedules, a problem for many low-wage hourly workers who then must secure family care on short notice. A typical retail schedule for the week beginning on a Sunday can be posted as late as the Thursday before.

According to a recent study of 648 low-wage, hourly workers, roughly half had “little or no” control over their schedules and nearly a third were required to work overtime with scant notice, says Jennifer Swanberg, associate professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky.

All this can lead to high rates of absenteeism and turnover in businesses that rely heavily on hourly workers. One study found that 30% of workers took time off the job due to family-care responsibilities during a single week, says Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, who studies work-life issues.

In some companies in industries such as retail, turnover rates among hourly workers are as high as 80% to well over 100%, says Ms. Williams. Replacing a single hourly employee can cost some 30% or more of a worker’s annual salary, she says.

The policies are in response to the vast changes in the hourly work force in recent decades, including an influx of women, single parents and couples with tag-team shifts. Still, many companies have stuck with rules designed for a very different work force, in which men were the primary breadwinners for stay-at-home wives.

“They are not matching their workplace to the work force. That’s a recipe for throwing money down the
drain,” says Ms. Williams. “The assumption in many companies is that any responsible worker can show up anytime the employer needs her or him. That’s not true for single moms and it’s not true for tag-team dads or for most of the work force.”

Management experts say that many firms are reluctant to change scheduling practices, fearing that letting workers shift their hours or telecommute could cut productivity or would be too difficult logistically. But some firms have found the benefits, in terms of decreased turnover and higher employee engagement, to be worth it.

Kaiser Permanente says employee surveys have found rising levels of engagement and commitment in recent years, which it attributes partly to its flex programs.

Turck has average annual turnover of less than 5%, says Lora Geiger, the company’s director of human resources.

The manufacturer, for instance, provides paid time off in increments as short as 15 minutes so that employees don’t need to take a full vacation day. The firm also has an onsite medical clinic, so workers spend less time away from work for medical appointments.

It wasn’t always like this. When Ms. Comeau, the supervisor, started at Turck 20 years ago as a line worker,
“you had to be here right on time; everything was more solid, more rigid. It was a lot tougher.”

At Johnson Storage & Moving, in Centennial, Colo., which employs 450 workers in five states, administrative workers, such as call-center staffers and dispatchers, are allowed to work remotely or off-hours. Among the 20 administrative employees who use the flex policies, there has been almost no voluntary turnover in the 16 years the policy has been implemented, says President Jim Johnson.

While movers themselves can’t work from home, Mr. Johnson has tried to offer his moving and warehouse staff control over their start and end times, if they have specific needs, like tending sick relatives or picking up their children at school. Doing so has significantly reduced no-shows and tardiness on moving jobs, he says, since employees can set hours that work best with their schedules.

When Jerry Sanchez’s wife took a new job a few months ago, the couple worried about who would pick up their five-year-old daughter from school. Mr. Sanchez, a warehouse manager at Johnson, was allowed to switch his shift, normally 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., to one running from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, plus makeup work on weekends. 10-03-2011. The Wall Street Journal.

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