On Furloughs

This week the New York Times had a great article about furloughs, the budget-saving device that’s been in the news quite a bit recently. The article recounts the stories of several employees forced or volunteered to take furloughs to save money. The problem with furloughs, though, is that the expectations are still there that the employee needs to complete the same amount of work. Many furloughed employees are coming to work or working from home on their furlough days.

As for the reasons employees continue to work on furlough days:

Some people take the time off but feel bad about doing so, out of loyalty to bosses and colleagues left to carry the workload. Others work quietly — and sometimes openly — through furloughs, because they fear for the long-term safety of their positions and hope their self-sacrifice impresses the management.

And some say the message from the management is unclear, leaving employees wondering: Is this real time off?

“I think it’s a joke,” said Roland Becht, who works at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in San Diego. (More than 200,000 state employees are supposed to have two furlough days each month.) “I’ve tried to schedule furlough time and was denied because we’re short-staffed.”

The kicker is that employers expect the same work done in less time:

And as more people are laid off or placed on unpaid leave, the burdens rise for those left at their desks.

Mr. Becht, who has managed to take two of his eight furlough days, said he was often overwhelmed on the front line dealing with customers at the motor vehicle office. He works about an hour of overtime a day to keep up with the crush of customers. Work is more stressful than ever, he said.

Pay is less, but the work is more stressful.

The NYTimes notes that many workers didn’t want their names printed for the record, for fear of retribution at work.

I also noticed some similar articles this week about British Airways asking staff to work for free.

A recent article in Governing magazine, brought to my attention by my boss, talks about a different approach to save money and increase efficiency (which began as lean manufacturing or just ‘Lean’):

They’re not examining the actual work being done — the operations are fundamentally the same. Instead, they’re left with tired, overworked employees trying to do the same operations with fewer resources.

This approach creates an illusion of efficiency. Real efficiency is about looking at the systems — the way work itself is designed — and finding ways to streamline the work so that we do our important tasks very well in less time and with less hassle. Systems are where the costs are incurred. Systems are where the customers show up. Systems are where the value of the agency is created. And systems appear to be the last thing anyone is focusing on.

Lots of governments and businesses are using furloughs now to save money, but I really think furloughs are a short-term solution (but solution isn’t a good term to use here).  Furloughs are a temporary money saving device, but you sacrifice production and employee morale in using furloughs.  Governments and businesses that want to survive need to start looking at all the services they provide and begin making the tough decisions about which services are necessary.