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Flexible work policies are good business

By Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., Managing Editor at HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, March 2007

It is a well known fact that employers can save on costs related to low productivity or absenteeism by giving employees flexibility in how they manage their time. However, many employers struggle with what type of flexible work arrangements should be offered to their employees. According to our last HRinfodesk Poll that asked our subscribers what flexible work arrangements they offer their employees, the majority of respondents answered that they offer flex time (61.29%). Other available flexible work arrangement options offered by respondents were:

  • Leaves/Sabbaticals (14.52%);
  • Telework/Telecommuting (9.68%)
  • Work sharing (6.45%)
  • Elder or child care support (4.84%)
  • Gradual retirement (3.23%)

Why the need for flexible work arrangements?

Several studies by Statistic Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC), the Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety and the Aon Consulting Group, among others, indicate that Canadians experience moderate to high levels of stress trying to balance home and work responsibilities. The notion of “family-friendly” workplaces has been borne out of the need to achieve this balance.

There is also little doubt that employee work-life conflict affects an organization's ‘bottom line.' The impact on the workplace when family responsibilities interfere with work performance can be substantial. The company may have to deal with high employee turnover, absenteeism, termination, and in extreme circumstances, violence. Having flexible work arrangements aim to promote a more flexible and supportive workplace culture, which is believed to be an essential part of providing a more balanced and healthy lifestyle for Canadians. This in turn will allow individuals to continue to be productive, valuable employees while getting the help and support they need to care for themselves and/or family members.

Many businesses have proactively developed workplace standards and policies that balance the needs of the employees and the business. Employers are establishing such practices as:

  • Flexible work schedules
  • Personal time-off programs
  • Job sharing arrangements

  • Reduced or compressed workweeks

  • Work from home arrangements

  • Counselling and training programs that offer practical suggestions on how to better affect the balance between personal life and work life with various strategies to manage and cope with stress

  • Sabbaticals or career breaks

  • Support programs such as child care, elder care, and nursing care programs

  • Compassionate leave in the case of serious illness

Employees want more flexibility from employers. An employer's ability to be flexible and help its employees adapt to ongoing changes will make them stand apart from its competitors and help companies retain their employees in a volatile labour market.

Explaining the available flexible work arrangement options

Flexible work arrangements include a wide variety of scheduling options that differ from the regular office hours expected in a workplace. Compensation can be modified where appropriate. The flexible work arrangement programs should be found in a formally written company policy, or an informal agreement between the employee and employer. Introducing flexible working practices is about allowing all employees regardless of their age, race or gender to find practical solutions that allow them to balance their working life with other responsibilities.

The most suitable arrangements for a particular organization often depend on its size, the type of business or operation, the resources available, the individuals involved, the location of the organization, client characteristics and the current economic situation.

Flexible work may consist of the following common arrangements (several of the explanations for flexible work arrangements come from the HRSDC studies):

Flex time (flexible work schedule)

Flex time is an arrangement where employees can vary their working hours around their primary operational responsibilities.

These arrangements are usually established with specific guidelines so that a "core" working day exists. Core work hours will be mutually agreed upon by the manager or supervisor and the employee who wishes to have a flex-time work arrangement. The total hours of work are not usually affected by this arrangement.

For example: An employee may choose to work the core work hours some days and then “flex” the other time required to make up the balance of the weekly working hours. This might include working the core hours (e.g., 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) only on one or two days per week and work extended hours for the balance of the working days to complete the full number of working hours.

Employees should communicate their start/finish times so that a routine is established and co-workers can become accustomed to each others' schedules.

Compressed workweek

Compressed workweek is a work arrangement where an employee works extra hours on a regularly scheduled workday so that the weekly or bi-weekly schedule is completed in fewer days. The employee would then be granted the time off work, with pay, within the same work period.

Employees may start earlier or finish later than the normal work day. Compressed workweeks are often initiated by the employee, but sometimes the employer may initiate the option to improve operational efficiency, to maximize production (reduced daily start-up costs) or to establish longer business hours which can enhance customer service.

For example: To complete a 40 hour workweek in four days, an employee would work four days at 10 hours per day. The fifth day of the week would be taken as a day off.

Reduced hours/part-time

Reduced hours/part-time is when employees work fewer than the standard 40 hour workweek. These arrangements may be on a temporary or permanent basis depending on individual circumstances. In some cases, it may be an appropriate arrangement to consider when accommodating employees with health problems or disabilities.

Reduced/part-time work hours are usually negotiated between the employer and employee, or the employer can choose the hours to coincide with peak workload hours depending on the type of business. However, employees who choose that option should be made aware that employee benefits and qualification for government programs such as employment insurance benefits may be affected, and should be examined thoroughly. The way you manage your part-time workers should not differ from the way you manage your full-time employees. By law you must treat your part-time workers as favourably as comparable full-time workers. A comparable full-time worker must work for the same employer and be doing similar work under the same type of contract.

Employers should indicate to employees that part-time work requests will not be granted to enable employees to pursue alternate career opportunities, private business interests, or for any purpose which could lead to or be perceived as a conflict of interest with the employee's position of employment.

Job sharing

Job sharing is a permanent work arrangement where two or more employees voluntarily share or split one full-time position. A written agreement outlining the terms should be entered into and signed by both the employees participating in the job sharing arrangement and the employer. If the shared position is a union position, the union shall also be a signing party to the written agreement. Each employee's salary will be pro-rated for the hours worked. The two job sharing employees may not work at the same time.

Each employee may be responsible for the whole job and all of its tasks, or alternatively, some projects or tasks may be assigned independently. By definition, for a job to be shared, both employees are accountable for the majority of its responsibilities, and must interact in order to accomplish them.

For example, jobs can be shared by:

  • splitting the work day with each employee working 3.5 hours
  • splitting the workweek with each employee working 2.5 days

Employers should indicate to employees that job sharing requests will not be granted to enable employees to pursue alternate career opportunities, private business interests, or for any purpose which could lead to or be perceived as a conflict of interest with the employee's position of employment.

Annualized hours

Flexible working time arrangements can also be provided in the form of "annualized" hours. These essentially allow employees to choose, within certain boundaries, their days and hours of work, with the proviso that they work a specified number of hours in a year. This can also be calculated over a shorter averaging period, be it on a monthly, biweekly, or other basis. Such arrangements combine elements of flex time and compressed workweeks and can have the added advantage of reducing recourse to overtime.

Employers may also benefit from such arrangements if they can be used to meet seasonal variations and peak hours. Moreover, output and product quality can be improved if employees work during their most productive periods of the day.


Telework/telecommuting is a work arrangement in which employees enjoy limited flexibility in working location and hours. In other words, it is an alternative work arrangement for employees to conduct all or some of their work away from the primary workplace. The work location might be a residence or a satellite office (an office closer to the employee's residence or another acceptable location) conducive to accomplishing work requirements. The focus should be on providing worksites at locations that reduce employee commuting time and inconvenience while allowing employees to accomplish their work effectively.

Common law defines telecommuting as any arrangement in which an employee regularly performs officially assigned duties at home or other worksites geographically convenient to the residence of the employee; and eligible employee as any satisfactorily performing employee of an organization whose job may typically be performed at least one day per week at an alternative workplace.

The telework schedule may be fixed or episodic.

Full-time Telework: The employee completes all or almost all duties outside of a traditional office setting. This may include some work done at home, in clients' offices, or at a satellite office and occasionally coming to the office for a meeting or planning session; however, the duties lend themselves to work away from the office. This kind of work provides for the potential savings based on shared use of current space or cost avoidance for office rent that otherwise would have to be expended. This type of telework can help organizations retain valued employees who live far away from the geographical area of the office.

Part-time Telework: The employee teleworks on a regularly scheduled basis. This may be one or more days a week, every two weeks or several days in a month. This also may lend itself to savings in office space as part-time teleworkers can rotate and share office space.

Episodic or Situational Telework: The employee teleworks on an irregular basis. The telework opportunity may be a result of a medical problem, reasonable accommodation, or the need to be focused on a special project. Other situations may develop that make it beneficial for the employee and supervisor to agree on an episodic telework opportunity. This type of telework also is essential for potentially volatile situations (e.g., during an emergency or possible pandemic). Telework should be an integral part of any organization's plans for continuity of operations. Telework allows the organization to remain responsive to its customers at all times.

Telework should be used as a benefit that allows your best employees the flexibility to work wherever and whenever it makes sense. For example, when they are unexpected work demands, snow storms, deadlines, or if an employee must take care of a sick family member. Organizations must define and set parameters for all telework arrangements. Studies show that clear guidance and direction increase the chances of success for telework programs.

Gradual retirement

According to Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC), gradual retirement allows older employees, usually with long service records, to progressively reduce their working time and workload over a period of time instead of abruptly shifting from full-time employment to retirement.

Phased retirement programs can be useful in retaining skilled older employees who would otherwise retire (especially in sectors where there is a labour shortage), in reducing labour costs, or in arranging the training of replacement employees. Gradual retirement also allows employers to plan attrition and to a certain extent maintain employee morale when a company restructures its operations.

Gradual retirement can also be beneficial for older workers, not only in easing the transition to retirement, but also in balancing their work and family responsibilities, particularly if they must care for an ageing spouse or elderly relative(s).

Although employees must usually agree to retire at the end of a defined period of time as a condition for participating in a phased-in retirement program, one provision allows participants to effectively terminate their participation in the program. Thus, soon-to-be-retirees can opt out of the program to take advantage of a better employment opportunity within the organization, or to return to a regular position. This offers a form of protection to employees who may re-evaluate their decisions due to a change in their personal circumstances (e.g., financial hardship, loss of a spouse) or because they wish to benefit from a firm's growth or increased profits (i.e., through profit sharing).


There is a myriad of possible leaves employers can offer employees. Some of them are required under federal and provincial employment/labour standards legislation such as vacation, public holidays, maternity, parental, adoption and compassionate care leaves. When providing those leaves, employers must adhere to minimum standards found in legislation in their jurisdiction.

When companies offer generous leaves, it often inspires loyalty and a sense of worth in employees. The availability of leave for caring and other family responsibilities has been recognized as a key element in balancing employees' work and personal lives, and as a means to reduce stress, absenteeism, tardiness and turnover. Providing personal/family leave has the added advantage of simplifying attendance management - particularly where contract language specifies notification requirements - and improving equity through the establishment of broad guidelines.

Other types of leave that can be offered are (this list is not exhaustive):

Personal reason leaves: compared to a leave pertaining specifically to family needs and obligations, the language used for personal reasons leave tends to be general, often remaining ambiguous with respect to reasons and conditions. This may make the attribution of such a leave much more flexible for workers, by allowing for a broader interpretation of personal and family contingencies. An added advantage of leave for personal reasons is that it can be beneficial to both employees with family responsibilities and those without. This can lessen resentment and tension in the workplace between groups of employees, while assisting all employees to achieve a better work-life balance. These leaves can be short or long term, paid or unpaid.

General leave at employer discretion: employers may agree on contract clauses giving the employer discretion to provide additional leave. Although the decision whether or not to grant leave rests entirely with management, the clause may nevertheless allow employees to obtain time off to deal with personal/family situations, if applied by a supportive employer. The inclusion of such language in an agreement has the advantage of recognizing the legitimacy of employee requests for personal leave and giving supervisors and other managers more flexibility.

A deferred salary leave plan: which may also be known as "self-funded", "prepaid", "purchased" or "employee-funded sabbatical" leave - is an arrangement whereby an employee voluntarily accepts a reduced income over a period of time in exchange for a more or less lengthy leave, during which the previously unearned portion of his or her salary is paid out. Such an arrangement may be very beneficial for employees who would like to take leave in a few years but who also wish to maintain a stable income during that period. Deferring a salary can also have fiscal advantages: lower earnings can be partly offset by ending up in a lower tax bracket.

Employee change of residence: arrangements related to a change of residence, including school selection for children and the moving of furniture and personal belongings from one dwelling to another, can be quite time-consuming and stressful. This can be alleviated, in part, by providing a leave of absence, thereby giving employees the ability and flexibility to attend to matters related to a move.

Spousal relocation: Some collective agreements provide for leave in case of a spousal relocation. This gives families the option of remaining together in the event that an employee's spouse relocates to a different area for a relatively long period of time. The duration of the leave typically depends on whether the relocation is temporary or permanent. For the most part, employment service and seniority are only partly accumulated, if at all, during the period of leave.

Religious leave: many Christian holy days have been designated as statutory holidays in Canadian legislation, and in the majority of collective agreements. However, a number of religious events that may be deemed very important to employees and their families may not be recognized as holidays, notably with respect to non-Christian religions. In order to accommodate different faiths and religions, some collective agreements and workplace policies include provisions pertaining to religious leave. Employees from various faiths and religious backgrounds can be granted leave in order to observe religious obligations, and to do so with family members. This leave may be paid or unpaid, or a mutually agreeable arrangement can be worked out between the employee and employer to make up the time off.

Bereavement leave: normally serves two purposes, giving an employee time to attend a funeral service (i.e., fulfilling ceremonial obligations) and to mourn the loss of a loved one. This partly explains the variable duration of bereavement leave in many agreements, according to the relative proximity of the deceased to the employee. Bereavement leave, which is legislated in the majority of Canadian jurisdictions, is also provided for in most collective agreements.

Marriage leave: in most cultures, marriage is considered to be one of the most momentous events in a person's life. Many individuals consider the link between marriage and family, if only at a symbolic level, to be important. It is at least an occasion for a family gathering, since it also usually entails the attendance and participation of family members and friends at the ceremony and the associated celebrations. According to the HRSDC, marriage leave provisions appear in almost a quarter of collective agreements, with very little variation since 1988. Although many of these provisions apply solely to an employee's own wedding, some also allow a leave to be taken to attend the marriage of a family member.

Child care and elder care services

The availability of affordable quality child care services is, for many workers, a crucial work and family issue. Indeed, the rise in both dual-earner and single-parent families in the past decades means that it is no longer possible, for most working parents, to rely on traditional child care arrangements (i.e., one parent - generally the mother - staying at home to raise children). Worries about the quality of care provided for their children when they are at work can be an great source of stress for employees, and may have a negative impact on their productivity.

Some employers have agreed to establish workplace day care facilities, provide child care subsidies and financial assistance to parents, or at least to establish joint committees to analyze needs and discuss potential solutions. These types of benefits help create and maintain loyalty, commitment and motivation and foster retention while reducing stress and improving employee morale.

Elder care leave, in the context of a rapidly ageing population and increasing life expectancy, is becoming more commonplace for working-age individuals who provide care for their parents, spouse or other elderly relatives. Tasks associated with elder care can range from occasionally accompanying someone to an appointment to providing the equivalent of full-time nursing care.

Elder care can be relatively time-consuming, particularly when compounded with child care responsibilities, as is the case for many people belonging to the "sandwich generation." Caregivers - primarily women - can often be torn between the demands of their job and the ability to provide quality care for their relative.

In order to help employees balance these responsibilities, and as an alternative to abandoning their job, employers have agreed, in a few cases, on contract clauses allowing employees to take long-term leave for the care of an elderly family member. A short-term family leave may also be used to meet some elder care obligations, although such leave may have to be shared among various family members requiring care.

What to consider when designing a flexible work arrangement

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety, no matter which program or how many options are available, the duties, expectations, and deadlines should be clearly outlined by the supervisor and agreed upon by both the supervisor and the employee. Supportive organizational culture, clear communication, teamwork and reciprocal support between management and employees will help ensure the success of these initiatives.

Other issues that should be considered include:

  • Initial start-up costs and additional administrative duties/time
  • How to schedule meetings and training courses so most employees can attend
  • Workload management
  • Meeting customer demands
  • Impact the employee's absence will have on the group or the organization
  • Impact on terms and conditions of employment (e.g., leave benefits may be pro-rated)

In addition, any flexible work arrangements established by the employer must comply with legal requirements found in provisions under employment/labour standards legislation of your jurisdiction such as hours of work and overtime. An overview for each jurisdiction can be found in the HRinfodesk Library under the Benefits and Pay and Working Conditions headings.