July 19th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

Flexible Working Hours:
A solution to the forthcoming commuter chaos

One date looms over the engineers involved in reconstruction of the Big Dig tunnels: September 5th. 2006. It´s the day after Labor Day when traffic in Boston returns to its normal volume after the August doldrums. If the tunnels are not back in service by that time, then gridlock on the Boston streets is virtually assured. Unless … .

Unless city officials and employers sit down and develop a time shifting strategy: Flextime.  Most people do not have a choice in their hours of work. Hours are usually inflexible and are set by the employer.

The most recent survey, undertaken by Boston College, of Flexible Working Hours (Flextime) in the United States suggests that about 30% of employers allow at least some employees to work flexible hours. The type of flexible hour system varies from complete flexibility with the hours chosen by the employee, through complete freedom with the choice jointly made by the employee and her/his supervisor, to a set of core hours when the employee has to be at work (say between 10.30am and 3.30 pm­with time for lunch) together with a flexible band when the employee can be at work (say 6.00am to 10.30 am and 3.30 pm to 11.00pm). Which of these will be suitable will depend on the characteristics of the firm and the job.

If Flexible hours were widely adopted in Boston in the coming month,  I suspect that we could cut the peak commuter times by about 15% and spread that traffic into the shoulder periods.

We have six weeks for the firms and the city and the State to make the plans to put a city-wide Flexible working hours scheme. It will require intense cooperation between firms and government agencies.

The problem must be addressed through a solution requiring a systemic change involving Boston firms and the public services provided by the MBTA and the police. The solution is the widespread adoption of flexible working hours. In addition to firms increasing their flexibility in working hours, infrastructure changes will have to occur simultaneously with the changes in working hours. The MBTA will have to change its train and bus schedules: rush hour schedules will have to be extended for an hour or two each side of the morning and evening peak hours. The police department will have to put more police on the street during these extended commuting hours. Only if commuting is made easier in these off peak hours will there be a major shift in individual commuting behavior.

Can Boston´s firms, police and politicians muster the energy required to make such cooperation work?

Martin Evans has been a student of organizations for over 35 years. He undertook one of the first evaluations of the impact of Flexible Working Hours in 1973.