The world of work is changing rapidly, and an employer’s desire — as well as its capacity— to keep pace may affect its ability to retain quality employees.

Flexible work arrangements are becoming more common, with more than half of employers offering some type of flexible option to workers, according to SHRM. Moreover, SHRM also found that 55 percent of employees cite workplace flexibility as a key component of job satisfaction.

Typically, employer-offered flexible work arrangements fall into one of three categories:

  1. Compressed workweeks are the most straightforward of all flexible work options. Instead of working 40 hours over five days, an employee works 40 hours in four days or fewer, then has the remaining days off.
  2. Schedule flexibility is a process in which an employee works 40 hours a week, but not in the traditional 9-5 time frame. Some employees will put in an earlier 7-3 shift, while others may start later and work an 11-7 shift. As with a compressed workweek, employees are still expected to put in full-time hours at their job site. The key difference is the employee has more choice over when those hours are worked.
  3. Telecommuting or remote work offers an employee the opportunity to work from an alternate location, usually their home. When an employee telecommutes, they remain in direct contact with the office through emails, instant messaging, and telephone. Remote work is often combined with schedule flexibility. At times, remote employees may need to come into the office for mandated activities, such as meetings.

While these flexible work arrangements often work quite well for organizations and their employees, they present a limited picture of how flexible work can be implemented. Moreover, not every kind of workplace is capable of offering these arrangements, which may not mesh well with the organization’s processes or the kind of work the company does.

Organizations in need of alternative approaches may do well to consider how the military, a highly specialized field, is able to grant its personnel flexibility.

Flexible Work in the Military

Flexible work is not common in the military yet, but two branches — the Coast Guard and the Air Force — do offer different types of flexible work to both military civilians and military personnel.

The Coast Guard authorized flexible work starting in 2009. The Coast Guard’s flexible arrangements include a compressed work schedule and three different models of flexible scheduling.

The Coast Guard’s compressed work schedule is fairly standard, permitting people to work four 10-hour days as opposed to five eight-hour days. Using a compressed work schedule does make an individual ineligible for a flexible work schedule.

The Coast Guard’s three flexible work schedules are Flexitour, Gliding, and Credit Hour. Beginning any of these programs does not require additional paperwork and training, simply the approval of a commander.

Flexitour creates a schedule which establishes core hours during which a participant must be present for duty. It then identifies flexible hours a participant can work, including arrival and departure times. Once these hours are agreed upon by the leader and the participant, they become fixed. Under this system, participants must notify supervisors of their arrival and departure times. In order to qualify, an applicant must prove that their Flexitour schedule will not disrupt work operations or impede accomplishing their unit’s goals. This program is open to service members and civilians.

By contrast, Gliding allows participants to make daily changes to their arrival and departure times. When doing so, the participant is obligated to start and stop work within hours defined by their leaders. Other than that, Gliding works similarly to Flexitour, with leaders and participants establishing set hours during which the employee has to be at work every day. This program is open to service members and civilians.

The final flexible work schedule is Credit Hour, in which employees get credit for hours worked over their basic schedules. Over a two-week period, a person can earn up to 24 credit hours. The employee can then use these credit hours to shorten the lengths of other workdays. This program, unlike Flexitour or Gliding, is not applicable to military members.

In 2010, the Air Force created its own flexible work program, called the Telework Program. Like the Coast Guard, the Air Force offers four options, but that is where the similarities end.

While the Coast Guard does not require additional paperwork or additional training for its flexible work arrangements, the Air Forces does. Flexible work participants are required to get a signed DD-2946 and complete Office of Personnel Management Telework 101 training.

The Air Force’s four types of telework are Routine, Situational, Emergency, and Unscheduled. The names are largely self-explanatory. Routine telework occurs as part of a normal schedule. Situational telework occurs when an employee needs to work on a special project or on a short-term assignment. Emergency telework is performed when a crisis occurs and forces an employee to work from home. Unscheduled telework occurs when government offices are closed, or when an emergency means people cannot go to their usual work locations.

Why Flexibility Is Worth a Try

Flexible work schedules of any type have the potential to improve the lives of employees. Not having to go into work every day can save them valuable time and money, and getting to work from home allows them to spend more time with family. For night owls or early risers, flexible schedules allow them to work at times when they are at their optimal performance, rather than at arbitrarily scheduled times.

Companies also stand to win with flexible working conditions. According to SHRM, workers tend to be more satisfied and more productive when they have access to flexible work arrangements. Moreover, retention improves, which cuts down recruitment and onboarding costs.

That said, it is not always easy to implement flexible work schedules — for civilian or military organizations. For example, there are aspects of military service which are not conducive to flexible work conditions. In operational units, where people train together frequently, flexible work conditions are difficult to implement. Leaders particularly need to be available for their personnel, and to be present at meetings with their commanders. However, some staff positions, such as those which do not serve in operational units, may be able to use flexible working conditions. Military leaders must be willing to try flexible working conditions to see what works well and what must be discarded.

The same can be said for civilian organizations in industries where flexibility is harder to implement. Flexible work arrangements clearly have benefits, so rather than dismissing them outright, companies should explore alternative options that may better suit their organizational rhythms and requirements.

As the military and civilian organizations alike look to increase retention, they can learn from the military branches that already utilize flexible working conditions. The Coast Guard and Air Force have strong retention rates, and can pass their best practices and lessons learned on to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and even civilian organizations going forward. This will enable the military and civilian organization to retain talented leaders and dedicated personnel in ever greater numbers.

Kevin Johnston is a contractor and technical writer working for the Headquarters Marine Corps Talent Management Oversight Directorate. The views expressed within this article are his own.

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