Flexible Work OptionsDuring the founding of the Michigan State University WorkLife Office, I met with various campus leaders and a common thread during these conversations emerged about the challenges in making fair decisions about different employees’ individual work - life circumstances. Leaders reported feeling uncomfortable making different decisions for different people, based on the individual’s unique situation. Sometimes the uncertainty about how to handle this results in simply denying requests (flex time or leave), or having universal but ill - fitting practices that are not satisfactory to anyone involved. A protocol that is responsive to individual circumstances, accountable and transparent through consistency, while protecting individual privacy seems to be needed. Such processes build trust and foster teamwork among department members and with leadership. My background in equitable decision - making through consistency of analysis led me to develop a protocol for such administrative decisions.


In my doctoral work, I developed a decision - making protocol to guide decisions about accommodation of students with disabilities in fields like rehabilitation, medicine, nursing, teaching and veterinary medicine. The guiding principle is based on the notion of equity – that treating different people/situations differently is fairer than treating different people/situations exactly the same, and that if different situations are addressed with a consistent approach, more unique yet equitable and accountable outcomes can be achieved.

The protocol model provides a consistent analysis of the task/work requirement that yields an accountable and transparent decision, regardless of the individual situation, but nonetheless responsive to it. The questions, referred to in Canadian law as the “three - step test”, are 1) Is the requirement established in good faith? 2) Is the requirement rationally connected to the purpose of the job/task? 3) What is the evidence of the need for the requirement? (Meiorin, 1999)

Flexible Work OptionsSupport for this idea to be applied in the field of work - life came from three sources. Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, Brad Harrington, was the keynote speaker at our launch conference for the MSU WorkLife Office. His Executive Briefing “Creating a Culture of Flexibility” recommends that employers, “Develop a decision - making process for requesting, approving and monitoring flexible work options with a focus on meeting business objectives.” Similarly, Nancy Costikyan, Director of WorkLife at Harvard wrote in the CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter 2018, “...the [personal] reason behind a flex arrangement proposal shouldn’t drive a manager’s decision. Instead, managers are urged to determine if the proposed arrangement will have a net - neutral or net - positive effect on the business.” And Michigan State University’s College of Education doctoral candidate Paul Artale proposed the following considerations in making decisions about flexible work strategies: “1) What are the key results you need from this job/position? 2) Is there only one way these tasks can be accomplished? 3) What is your concern regarding this proposed arrangement? 4) Would you be willing to try this alternative arrangement for a 30 - day period to gauge how well this proposed strategy will work?” (CUWFA Quarterly Review, Winter 2018)

Themes and Application

There are three common themes in these approaches: 1) having a credible, consistent approach for decisions based on the consequence to the work/unit; 2) focus on the job/task, not the individual person or reason for the request; and 3) consideration of multiple means to the same end, not a change in the end goal of the work. We can further develop these themes into a usable rubric by asking what principles or questions can be used to make equitable decisions on requests. The rationale for the decision is based on the consequence to the work/ unit , not on treating individuals identically in an attempt to be “fair”, when individuals are not identical (or worse, treating people differently with no clear rationale, which breeds resentment and mistrust).

Elements of the process include:

  1. Identify the impact and consider various means to the end, explore strategies, and then the decision is made to pilot and problem - solve, or not.
  2. Ensure the process is consistent in the considerations applied, responsive to different situations, equitable in outcomes, transparent and accountable while protecting the privacy of individuals’ situations.

The specific questions being proposed for implementation in the work - life arena:

  1. Focus on the job/task, not the individual person or reason for the request
    1. What is the nature of the task/job? Key responsibilities?
      1. What outputs or indicators of success must be evident?
      2. What shows accountability on those indicators? (How do you know the job is done successfully, or well enough?)
    2. What is the impact [of flexibility] on the work/unit, if any?
      1. Nature of the impact? Positive? Neutral?
      2. Probability of impact?
      3. Severity of impact?
      4. Scope of impact?
    3. If impact of being flexible is neutral or positive, why not be flexible?
  2. Consideration of multiple means to the same end (not a change in the end goal)
    1. Is there only one way to do this job?
    2. What is the evidence/reason for the need to do this job in a particular way/time frame/schedule/location?

Thanks to a recent inquiry from a support staff member at Michigan State, we have an employee who is interested in helping to pilot this process, in the context of her request for a flexible work schedule. Her supervisor is interested, and it was discussed among faculty members and myself that we might pilot this process with that unit, and one or two others, along with two or three academic departments, to see how effectively the question set helps make accountable, transparent, and individualized decisions at the unit level. This year, the college involved will lead the way in piloting a more equitable, transparent and trustworthy process for decision - making on employee requests. We’ll keep you posted on how it turns out and what we learn along the way!

Barbara Roberts, M.Sc. OT, PhD, is Executive Director of the WorkLife Office and Senior Advisor to the Provost at MSU, where she also holds an adjunct faculty appointment in the College of Education.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of CUWFA's Quarterly Review of Work-Life Policy and Practice. Join CUWFA now to read past and current issues!