It works for me . . .

By Kristen Meub

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Niederhaus family enjoys time together. John Niederhaus has been a permanent virtual worker for seven years. (Photo courtesy of John Niederhaus)

WHEN John Niederhaus (1446) married his wife seven years ago, he knew he couldn’t stay in Albuquerque. His wife was attending medical school out of state to be a transplant surgeon, and Albuquerque does not have any multi-organ transplant centers. While a move across the country was imminent for John, ending his career at the Labs was not, thanks to Sandia’s flexible work schedule options.

Sandia has a variety of work schedule options, including the standard 40-hour work week schedule, the 9/80 schedule, the current 4/10 pilot project in California, adjusted start times, incidental telecommuting, long-term telecommuting, and virtual work. In John’s case, virtual work was the right fit.

After he married, John had a series of temporary virtual work agreements with Sandia during the next three years while working from Wisconsin. When his wife found a job in Baltimore, new possibilities opened up. For about three years he had been traveling to Maryland regulary to meet with customers at the Army Research Lab (ARL). Now that he was based in Baltimore, he and his manager agreed he would work onsite at ARL once a week and work from a home office to access the Sandia network the other four days. With this arrangement, he became a permanent virtual worker.

“It’s an awesome privilege to be able to continue working for Sandia,” John says. “It’s a perfect fit for our family, and it’s been all around great for us.”

Making it work

To make it work, John travels back to the Albuquerque campus every six weeks for in-person meetings, and he shifts his hours to align more closely with his coworkers. He appreciates Sandia’s recent updates with Skype technology and says they have become an important part of how he stays in touch.

“The thing you miss out on most is the hallway conversations and the face-to-face contact, but this last year Skype video conferences have really helped with that,” John says. “With that green light by a contact’s name, you can see if someone’s office light is on, even if you’re not there.”

While technology plays a major role in enabling virtual work, John says communications skills are essential for success as a virtual worker.

Working remotely forces you to learn to be a good communicator.

“Working remotely forces you to learn to be a good communicator and makes you proactive about staying in touch with all of your coworkers,” John says. “It takes a deliberate effort. You spend a lot of time on the phone, and having a good headset and reliable phone and internet connection becomes essential.”

Randy Summers (1446), John’s manager who currently has one post-doc and three regular staff virtual workers, agrees: “They generally have high success and good communication with their regular project team, but gaining visibility beyond that project team can be difficult for a virtual worker, especially with the broader center management team. I specifically try to use mechanisms within our center to help mitigate that, and I require a certain frequency of travel back to Albuquerque — usually several days to a week per month back onsite. I expect virtual workers to be highly aggressive in getting opportunities to broaden their communications with other managers and employees.”

Randy sees Sandia’s flexible work schedule options as a powerful retention tool when the fit is right for the individual employee and his or her job responsibilities.

“In general, telecommuting and virtual work have been very helpful for retaining individuals you would lose without those options,” he says. “We’ve generally had success with people, and we usually make the determination based on the individual worker’s circumstances. I’ve had virtual workers on my team the last 13 years.”

Noah Zenker (6135) is another example of a Sandian who has been able to continue at the Labs through the flexible work schedule options.

Noah started working for Sandia in February 2012 and is currently focused on the design and development of complex systems models to evaluate and optimize system performance under uncertainty. After more than three years in Albuquerque, he moved back to the East Coast for family reasons.

NOAH?ZENKER, who works for Sandia from his East Coast home office, says the Labs’ flexible work schedule options have made it possible for him to continue working at a job he loves. (Photo courtesy of Noah Zenker)

NOAH ZENKER, who works for Sandia from his East Coast home office, says the Labs’ flexible work schedule options have made it possible for him to continue working at a job he loves. (Photo courtesy of Noah Zenker)

“I absolutely loved the work I was doing at the Albuquerque location,” he says. “My manager was very helpful and understanding and we figured out a way for me to continue working in the same group from a distance. I get to continue working a job that I love even though I can’t be onsite.”

Noah has worked to hone his communications skills and maintain a traditional work environment while working from home.

“A virtual worker needs to be someone who can be a clear and precise communicator over electronic means,” he says. “Extensively using Sandia’s Skype for Business tool for conference calls and video chatting with my manager has been very helpful for staying connected from a distance. Additionally, strong time management is a vital part of the role, and having a dedicated office in my home away from potential distractions has been essential.”

Schedules that work for everyone

Virtual work was recently distinguished from telecommuting with the revision of HR100.3.2: Initiate and Terminate Telecommuting or Virtual Work. Approximately 315 Sandians have a virtual work or long-term telecommuting agreement currently in effect. Long-term telecommuting covers a range of scenarios, from working offsite full-time for a specified amount of time, to doing a mix of working days onsite and offsite throughout the week, as agreed upon in a formal telecommuting agreement.

Cindy Fulcher (9545) has used a mix of telecommuting and working onsite for the last three years in combination with a standard work schedule, and appreciates the flexibility it gives.

“Telecommuting has been a really nice option for me,” Cindy says. “I do a lot of testing on software that Sandia develops, and I really enjoy my telecommuting days. They give me focused time for testing.”

During a typical week, Cindy will telecommute two days a week and work onsite the other three days, but she adjusts her schedule to be onsite more often as needed.

“I can sense when it’s important to be in the room for a meeting, so I’ll make sure to be onsite on those days,” she says. “I’m fortunate to be in a group that is open to telecommuting, and it helps me be successful in my job. There’s not a misconception with my group that telecommuting hinders productivity, or that it won’t be received well from a performance perspective.”

While telecommuting and virtual work are used by a small number of Sandians, having the option to choose between a 9/80 and standard work schedule is a long-standing benefit that affects every employee. Approximately 74 percent of Sandians work a 9/80 schedule, with 24 percent choosing a standard schedule, and 2 percent participating in the 4/10 pilot in California.

Cindy prefers the standard schedule for family reasons: “I have small children, and those long 9-hour days would be rough during the school year with dinner, homework, and everything else.”

Willie Marchetto (5773) has opted for the 9/80 schedule since he started at Sandia five years ago.

“It’s nice to have every other Friday off and be able to go on a weekend road trip without taking vacation,” Willie says. “It’s definitely a good benefit, and when we go recruiting we pitch it as a perk of working here. There’s a lot of interest in it, and not every employer offers it.”

It’s nice to have every other Friday off and be able to go on a weekend road trip without taking vacation.

Phyllis Teague (3644) prefers to work a standard schedule, and also uses the early start-time option: “My mom was visiting for a month a couple of years ago, and during her visit I shifted my start time to be able to spend more time with her in the afternoons. I ended up liking it so much that I kept that schedule after the visit ended. I like how quiet the mornings are for a couple of hours at work, and it’s also nice to have some daylight hours left when I leave in the afternoon.”

Flexible work schedules as a differentiator

Sandia is constantly looking to attract highly talented individuals with the right skills for the Labs’ work, and competition from other potential employers is stiff. Flexible work schedules help differentiate Sandia’s culture.

“The California site has a really hard time competing — it’s such a fight for talent, and the people who live right outside the gate may have heard of Lawrence Livermore, but they haven’t heard of Sandia,” Kimberly Edson (8522), the California site human resources manager, says. “Having flexible work schedule and work-life balance options is a leg-up in comparison to other high-tech companies. Many don’t offer as much in flexible schedules as we do, and they don’t offer work-life balance. These are the top ways we compete.”

When candidates are brought in for interviews at the California site, the human resources presentation focuses on flexible schedule options like the 9/80 schedule, the 4/10 pilot, and other work-life balance options.

“The reason for wanting it is different for everyone,” Kimberly says. “Some people want to volunteer at their kids’ schools, others want time to run errands, and some appreciate that they are helping the environment by not commuting to work that day.”

Managers also see the value in flexible work schedules as both an attraction and retention tool, and as a way to better support work needs.

“Cybersecurity is a highly competitive market, and sometimes the need arises for a high-performing employee to move to a different location, for whatever reason,” says Enterprise Cyber Security Manager Levi Lloyd (8965). “Virtual work has been a powerful tool to retain employees. We’ve had numerous instances of success. On the business side, it has been advantageous to have employees closer to customers through virtual work, and having people in different time zones has been helpful in creating greater coverage for the defense of Sandia’s network.”

Levi also uses flexible work schedules as a tool to keep promising student interns engaged with Sandia after they head back to school.

Our work-life balance focus and flexibility differentiate us from other employers . . .

“I use virtual work a lot with year-round student interns,” he says. “They come in as part of the Cyber Defenders program, and we are able to keep those who have been a good fit in our talent pipeline as virtual workers while they are back at school. We’ve had a lot of success in being able to hire from this pool as students graduate.”

From a human resources perspective, flexible work schedule options are a key component of Sandia’s suite of customizable benefits and options available to employees.

“When I think about what makes Sandia cool, from an HR perspective, our work-life balance focus and flexibility differentiate us from other employers,” says Human Resources Director Rob Nelson (3500). “We provide a multitude of schedule options to meet the different needs of a multi-generational workforce. Whether someone prefers a standard schedule, a 9/80 schedule, or is participating in the 4/10 pilot in California, or is able to work from home or in another state — these are all ways that we meet employees where they are in partnership on delivering on our national security mission.”

Is it telecommuting or virtual employment?

Sandia recently revised HR100.3.2: Initiate and Terminate Telecommuting or Virtual Work to clarify and differentiate incidental telecommuting, long-term telecommuting, and virtual work. Incidental telecommuting describes days when a manager approves an employee to work offsite, often due to inclement weather or other non-routine reasons. No agreement is required for incidental telecommuting; only an email between the employee and manager. Long-term telecommuting applies to someone who routinely works offsite at least one day a week (up to full-time), but lives within commuting distance of a Sandia worksite. Virtual work applies to someone who works offsite full-time and does not live within commuting distance of a Sandia worksite.

The revised policy includes guidance for both employees and managers on how to evaluate telecommuting and virtual work as options and tips on how to improve the chance for success. Telecommuting and virtual work are not the right fit for every employee or every job. Check with your manager on flexible work schedule options that can work for both you and Sandia.

Alternative Work Schedule pilot assessment under way

Since its launch last July 8, the 4/10 Alternative Work Schedule pilot in California has reached participation levels of 27 percent.

With the pilot now at the end of its six-month run, many employees are asking what’s next.

Currently, data is being gathered from surveys of both participating and non-participating employees as well as from manager feedback. Once the data is gathered, it will be used to make a recommendation on whether to move forward with Labs-wide implementation. That decision is expected in 2017.

In the meantime, exempt-level employees in the pilot can continue to stay on, or elect the 4/10 schedule.

Flexible work schedules help reduce Sandia’s carbon footprint

National awareness of the need to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is continually increasing, and is reflected in Executive Order 13514 Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade. In response to this order, Sandia is working to meet a 25 percent reduction target for fiscal year 2020, based on a baseline from 2008 for six categories of indirect GHG emissions. These categories are referred to as “scope 3 emissions” and include energy transmission and distribution losses, air travel, ground travel, employee commuting, off-site water waste treatment, and off-site landfill use. About 51 percent of Sandia’s GHG emissions come from the daily commute of its workforce, and another 42 percent are related to air and ground business-related travel.

“Telecommuting, virtual work, videoconferencing, and collaborative technologies all help us work toward the goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, but only if implemented appropriately,” says Benjamin Henning (4143), who is working on Sandia’s environmental sustainability and GHG emissions reduction efforts. “For example, when several employees in a work group coordinate their telecommuting that can lead to more office sharing and can result in the reduction of electricity use. Both of those activities together would maximize the impact on our carbon footprint reductions.”

Benjamin also says flexible scheduling can make a big difference: “Adopting the 9/80 schedule and participating in the 4/10 pilot are one way the workforce can directly contribute to drastically reducing our carbon footprint. If all of Sandia could magically convert to a four-day work week, we would already meet or be close to meeting our 2020 goals. ”

Sandians log almost 90 million miles of air travel annually, according to Benjamin. “Use of our videoconferencing and collaborative technologies can help reduce those related emissions.”