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Let's Hear It for V-Time: Yet Another Flexible Work Arrangement

Dec. 23, 2008 — These turbulent financial times continue to take a number of fascinating twists with regard to work-life practice. After absorbing the news that more and more companies are abruptly terminating the practice of matching employees’ 401(k) contributions, I was captivated by a cover story in yesterday’s (12/22/08) New York Times that describes the efforts of some employers to avoid (or significantly reduce) lay-offs. Sure enough, before I could get this blog entry written, the media started to call, asking what this new approach is and how does it work?

Well, for starters, this is not a new concept, but I am pleased to see it gaining some traction, since it makes even more sense today than it did when it was invented. It has a name, referred to in work-life circles as “V-Time,” an abbreviation for Voluntary Reduced Work Time. It is described in detail along with all other forms of flexible work options in the invaluable book, Creating a Flexible Workplace: How to Select & Manage Alternative Work Options, by Barney Olmsted and Suzanne Smith, the founders of New Ways to Work in San Francisco. The book is out of print and the two women closed up shop a long time ago after three decades of teaching most of us in the work-life field the technical ropes of this foundational aspect of the work-life portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve referred to the cost-benefit analysis worksheets contained in their book, since they were the first to calculate reliable formulas for determining which of the extensive suite of  FWAs are best matched to a specific work group’s output, needs and culture. And no one since has documented so comprehensively the nuts and bolts of implementing any form of flexible scheduling, including this seldom-noticed arrangement, whose time may have finally arrived. Once again, I grabbed my dog-eared copy off the shelf this morning, after reading the NYT article, to remind myself about the particulars.

V-time was originally developed back in the 1970’s as a time/income trade-off that allows otherwise full-time employees to reduce work hours for a corresponding reduction in compensation.  It differs from regular part-time employment in four ways; first, there is a time limit on the arrangement; secondly, there are often smaller time reductions than most part-time or job-sharing arrangements; third, a process is specified for returning to full-time work after the need for reduced time has passed; and, fourth, these arrangements are often employed with groups of workers simultaneously, and not as often on a case-by-case basis.

Most relevant is the fact that the first recorded usage of V-Time was a joint labor-management effort to minimize layoffs. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the county administration in Santa Clara, CA, negotiated an agreement that began at the end of 1976, when the county was in a budget crisis and was forecasting a 6.5% reduction in staff. A California legislator used the county V-Time model to frame the Voluntary Reduced Work Time Act of 1980, which authorized California state employees to request a variety of reduced work time options. In 1984, New York used a similar program design as the basis for its Voluntary Reduction in Work Schedule Program. Shaklee Corporation was the first private-sector employer to implement a V-Time program in 1983. Ford Motor Company piloted a program in 1992-1993. Its usage has been infrequently cited since then, although during every economic downturn, there have been new examples of experiments with the concept. I remember reading that Deloitte and/or Accenture applied the principle by furloughing a number of employees in the last recession, earlier in this decade, paying a small portion of salaries while awaiting a cyclical upturn. 

Fast-forwarding to our current crisis, there are a number of employers, public and private, who are actively casting about for workable alternatives to massive layoffs: Caterpillar, Brandeis University, Dell, Cisco, Motorola, several casinos in Las Vegas, Honda. No one seems to know how long we’ll be on the ropes, but the notion of wielding a scalpel rather than an ax is an interesting idea, one that your employer’s work-life expert can help implement with precision.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WorldatWork and its affiliate, Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP).


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