WorkFlex addresses longstanding P&S Council goal

For several years, the Professional and Scientific Council has advocated for greater flexibility in when and where staff can do their jobs. With the new WorkFlex program announced last week, the council's longstanding aim will become reality beginning in January, which prompted a discussion about the program at the council's Oct. 7 meeting.

The program will allow P&S and merit staff -- if it makes sense for their job duties, supports Iowa State's mission and is approved by their supervisor -- to work alternative or reduced hours or adopt a hybrid schedule that could include working remotely up to three days a week.

Learn more at seminar

In "WorkFlex: First Steps," a P&S Council seminar series event set for Oct. 19 (2-3 p.m., via Webex), university human resources benefits director Ed Holland will discuss the program in further detail. The seminar is open to all ISU employees. Before the event, consider taking an online survey the P&S Council is conducting to prioritize issues and solicit specific questions. 

Patrick Wall, chair of the council's compensation and benefits committee, said the options available in WorkFlex are in most cases similar or better than those offered by other institutions.

"The program we have ended up with is very good," he said.

Staff can begin to submit WorkFlex requests during an initial application window that runs Nov. 1-26. Supervisors will make decisions about requests by Dec. 23, and WorkFlex arrangements will be effective Jan. 18. More detailed information will be released to staff next week, and the council is hosting a seminar series on WorkFlex with university human resources Oct. 19 (2-3 p.m., via Webex).

Developing the program has taken time, as will implementing it. But it's important to allow for supervisor training on considering requests and understanding the options available, Wall said.  

"What we don't want is for an entire department to turn in a WorkFlex application and have the supervisor go, 'Everybody wants Friday off. I can't do that, so the answer is no,'" he said.

Supervisors will evaluate employee requests by considering the needs and staffing of the unit and Iowa State's research-intensive and residential campus, which relies on in-person learning, support and services. Full-time remote arrangements will not be allowed in the initial round of WorkFlex applications, pending an evaluation of remote-work pilot studies being conducted in finance and information technology services.

Some council members shared concerns that willingness to approve WorkFlex proposals may vary from unit to unit. Council president Chris Johnsen said the guidelines balance differing perspectives, and he expects approval rates will be equitable across campus. He encouraged staff to extend some grace as they discuss WorkFlex with co-workers, managers and direct reports.

"Allow supervisors and staff to digest and understand the program. Assume good intent. And recognize that being flexible, like communication, is a two-way street," he said.

Former council president Tera Lawson, serving as a substitute councilor, said while there's more work to be done on the issue, the council has been advocating for flexibility since at least 2015, and it's important to recognize that WorkFlex represents significant progress.

"This is definitely moving in the right direction," she said.

Flex meetings, too?

To allow for greater physical distancing, the council's meetings Nov. 3 and Dec. 2 will be moved from the usual location in either the Gallery or Pioneer room on the third floor of the Memorial Union to the South Ballroom on the second floor. That may not be the only change coming for council meetings.

Johnsen asked the council to discuss offering meetings in a hybrid format, allowing members to participate virtually. An option to join the in-person meeting from a remote setting potentially could address growing retention and recruitment concerns, though it presents technological and financial challenges, he said.

"Hybrid meetings are not as easy as having a laptop on in the back of the room," he said.

Council members weighed in both for and against offering meetings in a hybrid format, though no formal proposal was discussed.

Representation committee chair Jason Follett said hybrid meetings might be valuable once WorkFlex is in place because some members may not be working on campus when the council or its committees meet. Fellow representation committee member Mickie Deaton said a virtual option would make meetings less of a time commitment for observers and would make sitting on council easier for P&S staff whose regular workplaces aren't in Ames.

Council president-elect Jamie Sass and others were more skeptical, noting that council meetings have been livelier and more engaging since resuming in-person starting in August. Regardless, Sass said she'd be open to hybrid meetings if the council can find a good solution for holding them.