Flex-Time: Want a Four-Day Workweek? IT is Key

As oil prices continue to fluctuate, the economy flounders and the pressure is on to slow global warming, both public- and private-sector organizations are turning to alternative work schedules such as telecommuting, flex time and four-day workweeks to ease the pain to their bottom lines, their employees' wallets and the environment.

For example, the state of Utah recently announced a one-year trial of a four-day workweek where most non-essential services are shut down on Fridays to save more than US$3 million in utility costs. Across the country, other organizations, such as the Hawaiian state government, have disclosed similar plans as well as telecommuting initiatives and flex-time to reduce carbon emissions, give employees a break from crushing gas prices and possibly cut down on expenses.

But as beneficial as these plans promise to be, without early involvement by IT, they may be doomed to failure. Experts say it's critical for IT to assess the infrastructure's ability to support increased remote access to services by employees and customers.

"If you're going to shut buildings down and change work schedules, you have to know how you're going to keep business going and what IT support you'll need to make that happen," says Utah CIO Stephen Fletcher.

Well before Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman revealed his four-day workweek plan to the public this summer, he gathered his cabinet members, including Fletcher, to determine if such a move was even feasible. "The governor was very clear in those early meetings that we still had to make services available even if our buildings weren't physically open for business," Fletcher says.

Keeping 850 online services operating Fletcher met with every department to figure out which applications their customers would need access to during the off day. He focused on completing the 850 online services the state now offers and building up the external-facing Web infrastructure needed to support increased traffic from citizens looking to pay taxes, renew driver's licenses and carry out other common e-government tasks.

Fletcher's team earned top ranking in this year's Center for Digital Government's Digital States Survey of e-government services. He says the governor's inclusion of his team in the early planning helped him guarantee that there would be enough servers, bandwidth and other resources to make the plan a success.

The governor's strategy also gave Fletcher time to assess how best to reallocate his consolidated IT resources, which would normally be targeted at supporting in-house employees on Fridays, to other strategic projects.

While Hawaii is taking its cue from Utah and piloting a four-day workweek, that state has also thrown in the challenge of adding greater support for remote access for employees.

Hawaii's government, the state's largest employer, says telecommuting is a necessary element of its project to help reduce traffic congestion in Honolulu's downtown area during peak hours, provide employees with a better work/life balance, and serve as a recruitment and retention tool, according to Marie Laderta, director of Hawaii's Department of Human Resources Development.

State officials are working closely with IT to make sure that employees who have been approved for telework can securely access file systems as well as do remote transaction processing. However, the state has already hit a snag because some transaction processing requires the use of paper files. Laderta says removal of paper documents from the office raises privacy concerns and must be closely examined before the pilot is expanded. "For now, we are limiting the remote transaction processing to systems administration and monitoring, small-scale systems development, and processing that does not require access to paper files," Laderta says.

Bringing IT to the Table Early

Brad Johnson, vice president at consultancy SystemExperts in Westerly, R.I., says Utah and Hawaii should be commended for bringing IT to the table early to hash out issues that might otherwise have had disastrous results down the road.

"Most organizations don't think these flex plans or four-day workweeks the whole way through. There's no doubt that a change in work hours can mean additional costs for an organization—particularly for an environment that hasn't offered remote access before," Johnson says.

He points to help desk support as an example. "There is a big jump between supporting most of your workforce in-house to supporting a large percentage remotely," he says.

It doesn't work for some workers Mark Gibbs, CEO of consultancy Gibbs Universal, recommends that organizations start their alternate work-hour projects by figuring out who in the organization would be able to take advantage of it. As the Hawaiian government has discovered, some users might not be able to conduct their jobs remotely because of regulatory or corporate compliance constraints.

But it's not just regulatory constraints that limit who can take advantage of such a program—it's also legacy applications that can't easily be accessed remotely. "They become apparent pretty quickly," Johnson says. He adds that there is a cost to making those applications available that has to be considered.

Organizations must decide how they're going to allow users to safely access data on the network—by an employee's home PC, an organization laptop or a virtual desktop. Johnson says all of these avenues require some level of IT support that is different than on-site support.

One snafu that some organizations might encounter is around infrastructure and licensing. Johnson says IT teams might need to add more firewall licenses or boost server capacity to accommodate increased concurrent remote access to the network—another hidden cost.

Gibbs advises using instrumentation such as dashboards to make sure that the objectives of your alternate work-schedule project are being met and that you're not negating the positives with unexpected costs. If you're focused on providing access for employees, make sure you monitor and measure all the resources they use, including cell phones, voice over IP, applications and laptops. If you're focused on providing customer service while your business is closed, then you need customer experience tracking tools to guarantee you're meeting their needs.

Fletcher agrees and has deployed monitoring tools that help him record customer usage on the day off as well as application and network performance. That way, he can report back to state executives on the customer experience and the effectiveness of the project.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston. Former events editor and writer at Network World, she developed and hosted the magazine's technology road shows. She is also the former managing editor of Network World's popular networking site, Fusion. She has won several industry awards for her reporting, including the American Society of Business Publication Editors' prestigious Gold Award. She can be reached at sgittlen@verizon.net.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter