By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Controlled trial shows benefits of workplace flexibility
For the first time, a randomized controlled trial shows the positive effects of workplace flexibility on a company and its employees. And that's kind of a big deal. - photo by Greg Kratz
It's official: I'm a work-life balance nerd.

I'm sure that elicits a resounding "Duh!" from all 42 of my regular readers, but I never thought of myself in those terms until I pondered my reaction to an email I received last week.

That email talked about a randomized controlled trial on the effects of workplace flexibility on a company and its employees.

My first thought when I read it was something like, "Wow! Surveys are great, but this is real science! Exciting!"

Yep. Nerd.

Regardless of my personal epiphany, I am excited about this research, which was conducted over the course of 12 months in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company. Leading the study were Phyllis Moen, who holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota; Erin L. Kelly, a professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an affiliate of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT Sloan; and their colleagues in the Work, Family, and Health Network.

Moen and Kelly split the subject IT division in two, according to a press release about the study. Half the employees participated in a pilot program in which they learned about work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives.

"These practices focused on results, rather than face time at the office," the press release said. "Employees then implemented these practices, which ranged from shifting their work schedules and working from home more to rethinking the number of daily meetings they attended, increasing their communication via instant messenger, and doing a better job of anticipating periods of high demand, such as around software releases.

"Managers in the pilot group also received supervisor training to encourage their support for the family/personal life and professional development of their reports."

Meanwhile, the control group didn't receive any training and was governed by the company's previous policies.

According to Moen and Kelly, the results were "definitive." The employees who participated in the test said they felt more control over their schedules and support from their bosses, and they were more likely to say they had enough time with their families. They also reported higher job satisfaction, as well as less burnout and stress.

As someone who has written about this topic extensively, I'm now the one who feels the need to say, "Duh!" This is exactly what all of those surveys I've written about have indicated over the years. But this is the first controlled trial to confirm it, and that's great news.

It also adds yet another voice to the growing chorus that says flexible work schedules make employees happier, healthier and more productive. But Kelly said in the press release that, despite the mounting evidence, flex work still has a bad reputation in some circles.

"The worker thinks, If I ask for special treatment, it will kill my career, and I wont get promoted. The manager thinks, If I give in to this employee, others will ask me, too, and no one will get their work done. Even many academics take a skeptical view of flex programs and see them as a way for Corporate America to take advantage of workers," Kelly said in the press release.

Moen said it shouldn't be that way. After all, not only did the workers in the trial feel better about their jobs and their family lives, but they were also more efficient and productive while on the job.

"In other words, workplace flexibility is beneficial not detrimental to organizations," she said in the press release.

I have repeatedly said the same thing over the years, based on the anecdotal evidence of earlier surveys. When businesses help their workers have more balanced lives, both the companies and the employees win. There aren't many cases in the working world that present a true win-win scenario, but I believe this is one and I have science on my side!

The press release about this new study emphasized that organizational initiatives that improve workers' "subjective well-being" lead to higher productivity, lower absenteeism, less turnover and a reduction in "presenteeism." That last term refers to employees who show up every day but aren't engaged in their work.

Todays workers are bombarded by advice on how to juggle their work and family lives were told to take up yoga, or learn to meditate, or only check email twice a day, Moen said in the press release. But individual coping strategies alone wont solve the problem.

"Our study makes clear that organizational initiatives, including programs that promote greater flexibility and control for workers as well as greater supervisor support, are needed.

I completely agree, and I feel this goes back to the need for companies to make their policies regarding flexible work more formal. Just leaving it up to middle managers to decide when and how people can work from home is OK, but setting up a corporate culture that embraces flexibility is better.

If you want to read more about this study, its (quite long!) official title is, Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees Well-Being? Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network. It will appear in the February print issue of the American Sociological Review.

If you're a work-life balance nerd like me, I suggest you secure a copy and leave it on your manager's desk. In today's data-driven atmosphere, I'm sure the results of a scientific study will be appreciated.

Maybe your boss will even get excited about it, like I did, and we'll gain more converts to our nerd cause. It could happen!
Sign up for our e-newsletters