A closer look at how WorkFlex will work

With the release of detailed guidelines and a live seminar this week, employees got a more in-depth look at a new program that offers ISU staff flexibility in when, where and how they work.

For more information

To review all of UHR's guidance and resources on WorkFlex, visit the program's website. A recording of the Oct. 19 seminar is available in Learn@ISU. Log in with your Net-ID and search the keyword FY22-02.

While the options it provides may have been available in the past, the WorkFlex program first announced earlier this month formalizes a consistent process for proposing, considering and approving such arrangements, university human resources (UHR) benefits and WorkLife director Ed Holland said in an Oct. 19 virtual seminar hosted by the Professional and Scientific Council.

When it fits an employee's job duties, a unit's needs and Iowa State's mission, WorkFlex will allow employees to work remotely up to three days a week, adapt their schedule to work at different times of the day, adopt a compressed work week of fewer but longer days, or work part-time. The program is for staff only because faculty schedules are already flexible.

Offering flexibility to eligible staff has long been a goal, but it took on greater urgency after the COVID-19 pandemic made remote working and adjusted schedules more mainstream, Holland said in the seminar. There are numerous benefits for both employees and the institution.  

"We see this as very valuable to the university going forward," he said. 

Based on resources UHR released on the WorkFlex website and comments from Holland and associate vice president for human resources services and strategy Dwaine Heppler during the seminar, here's a breakdown of how the program will work. 

Proposing a plan

Requests for the first round of WorkFlex arrangements, which will be effective at the start of the spring semester Jan. 18, can be submitted Nov. 1-26. Interested employees should think through their preferences, including the implications for their work teams and clientele, and discuss their perspectives and possible solutions with their supervisor.

UHR's employee guidance provides numerous questions to mull before requesting flexible work, including issues specific to each potential option. Employees who decide to pursue the program will submit an application through Workday similar to this draft form. Staff will need to outline their plans, estimate the impact on customer service and colleagues, and make a "business case" for why the arrangement would benefit the university and an employee's unit.

It's important that staff try to understand where their colleagues and supervisor are coming from as they approach WorkFlex discussions, which is part of the reason the WorkFlex website includes guidance for both employees and supervisors, Holland said.

Employees can work with their HR delivery team if they have questions as they develop their proposal or would like a review of their request.

Deliberate consideration

Supervisors will consider WorkFlex requests after the application window has closed and will have about a month to make decisions. The deadline for the initial round of applications is Dec. 23.

The deliberate process avoids a first-come, first-served approach. Ensuring supervisors have enough time to fairly consider requests was one of the biggest concerns from both staff and managers, based on feedback UHR received while developing WorkFlex, Holland said.

"That's why the program is being rolled out the way it is," he said.

UHR's guidance for supervisors recommends discussing WorkFlex as a team to encourage clear and fair decisions. Topics for a team to cover include setting coverage schedules, identifying core hours when all employees are available, determining what meetings or activities need to be in-person, setting protocols for changes and requests, and establishing online collaboration and communication methods.

Approval process

When considering WorkFlex requests, UHR's guidance directs supervisors to examine five components, which also are outlined in an assessment form:

  • Business need/benefit
  • Position suitability
  • Employee suitability
  • Supervisory conditions
  • Team effectiveness

After supervisors review requests and approve proposed arrangements with employees, the respective staff appointing authority must sign off on requests to ensure they support unit goals and the university's mission. An appointing authority is an administrator who is able to hire employees under university policy. For staff, that could be a department chair, director, dean, associate provost, vice president, senior vice president or the president. 

A flow chart illustrates the routing process for a WorkFlex request. Some departments may require requests to receive higher-level approval, Holland said.

If the request is approved, an employee and their supervisor will sign an agreement outlining the details of the arrangement. A draft agreement for hybrid work includes provisions related to matters such as university equipment and property, performance and remote workspace expectations, leave policies and workplace safety.  

Addressing concerns

If an employee thinks their request hasn't been evaluated fairly, the first step is an informal conversation with their supervisor. If the situation remains unresolved, consult with HR delivery.

If a dispute can't be resolved informally, both merit and professional and scientific staff can review formal grievance processes to determine if that is an option. Formal written grievances are reviewed for eligibility before they can proceed through the grievance process.

Though there likely will be discussion among college and unit leaders about how to fairly weigh requests, the widely varying workplaces across campus likely will lead to some differences in how requests from similar positions are handled, Heppler said. 

"What may work in one department might not work in another department," he said.

Answers to numerous possible concerns and questions related to WorkFlex are collected in an FAQ.

Looking forward

A new round of WorkFlex requests will be accepted three times a year, before the start of the fall, spring and summer sessions. The next round, for instance, is expected to open for applications March 7 for arrangements effective May 16, the first day of the summer term.

For new hires or staff who have an unexpected change between application periods, temporary flexible work arrangements less than three months long can be used, Holland said. Staff whose requests are denied also can apply in future application periods. Approved agreements will need to be renewed annually.

Though full-time remote work isn't allowed yet, it may be possible at some point. Before considering a fully remote option, senior leaders want to assess employee satisfaction and productivity in two units currently running remote work pilot studies, Heppler said.

That evaluation will extend into the spring semester, he said.