Vol. 4 Num 193 Wed. December 10, 2003  

The value of flextime

Most developed countries, including the United States, are adopting a flexible conception of time, called flextime, under which workers choose the hours they are at the workplace. This article demonstrates that flextime is indeed an Islamic value, which should be implemented in Muslim countries.

It is no secret that the pace of development determines the conception of time. Time has one meaning in agrarian economies that respond to seasons, and another meaning in technologically advanced societies that count on seconds. In pastoral and agricultural societies, where the modes of living and the means of production are related to seasons, the people see little need to define activity in terms of hours and minutes. But as societies embrace technology, time is no longer a seamless poetic reverie but is broken into hours, minutes, seconds, and split seconds. This digitization of time is necessary to promote efficiency and speed. In America, for example, almost everything has been orchestrated in the digitized realm of time. Accurate watches, appointments, and schedules promote an infrastructure of mutual reliance. Everybody benefits when trains and planes arrive on time, workers and managers equally respect the clock, and scheduled events begin and end at the prescribed hour.

While punctuality is indispensable for the synchronization of multiple actions, a rigid stratification of time is not. This distinction lies at the heart of flextime.

In the United States and elsewhere, successful companies and some government departments have realized that flextime is superior to the traditional nine-to-five, forty hours, five days a week regimen. Fixed work routines ignore the complex realties of business needs and employee preferences. They also lead to unnecessary employment stress and enforcement costs as employers are constantly watching the arrival and departure times of their employees, and employees are constantly inventing excuses to defend time deviations. Lurking behind this facade of discipline is the irony that even if workers come and go on time, rigid routines do not necessarily assure more productivity.

In contrast, employees are much happier if allowed to custom-design their workdays and workweeks. For example, early risers can begin their workday before others whereas commuters might opt for a late start. Working mothers with young children need more flexibility to carry out multiple tasks of the household. Some businesses allow employees to work from home. Some prescribe no time schedules but empower employees to decide what to do and when to do provided the assigned work is done by the due date. Under the innovative concept of flextime, work hours as well as the work itself are fluid entities that accommodate the differing needs of employees and employers -- a win-win combination that leads to job satisfaction, loyalty, honesty, high morale, decreased absenteeism, and increased productivity.

Respect for time, however, remains a core value even under flexible arrangements. Flextime does not repudiate appointments and schedules. Nor is it a license for anyone to come and leave at will. If anything, flextime outlaws arbitrariness or chaos at the workplace. It is a discipline that employees choose for themselves, though with the consent of the employer who must also be generous and understanding.

Unfortunately, respect for time in many Islamic countries borders on anarchy. Punctuality in official appointments and social gatherings is uncommon. Clocks and watches serve as ornaments rather than instruments of time. Frustrated with constant delays at every turn of the day, some organizations want to impose rigid time-structures reinforced with penalties. The remedy however lies in turning towards flextime.

Flextime is a value incorporated in the basics of Islam. Consider, for example, prayers and fasting. The Quran mandates that regular prayers be said at stated times (4:103). As a general principle, the five daily prayers are performed in congregations in mosques on scheduled times. This preferred method of discharging prayer obligation, however, is not rigid or oppressive. It is flexible. If needed, Muslims can pray at home. Under compulsion and necessity, prayers may be performed later than appointed times (qaza). Women are exempt from prayers during menstruation. Travelers can collapse five prayers into three for a more efficient use of time.

Likewise, fasting prescribed for Muslims during the month of Ramadhan carries inherent flexibility, for according to the Quran, God burdens no soul beyond endurance. "Fasting is for a fixed number of days, but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the prescribed number (missed) should be made up in later days." This concession is repeated twice in the Quran to underscore that Islamic obligations are infused with pragmatism and flexibility. In addition, pregnant and nursing mothers may postpone fasting and fulfill their obligation later. The Quran promotes flextime on the ground that "God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties" (2:185).

Flextime granted in Islam, however, cannot be abused. Prayers cannot be postponed for frivolous reasons such as laziness, gossip or fun. Feigned illness or traveling for the sole purpose of avoiding fasting is fraudulent behavior, not entitled to God's concession.

These examples are not exhaustive but illustrative to affirm that flextime is a profound Islamic value that places obligations in the realm of facility, not difficulty. Muslims are comforted that developed countries, including America, are adopting flextime to achieve material success and promote agreeable working conditions. They must now consider how they themselves can use this beneficial Islamic value.

Dr. Khan is a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas.