Memo to Corporate America: Flexibility Programs Work. So, What's the Holdup?

What would your life be like if you--not your boss--got to choose where, when, and how you worked?
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Co-authored by Phyllis Moen, the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

What would your life be like if you--not your boss--got to choose where, when, and how you worked?

You might, for instance, leave the office early on certain days to pick up your son at daycare; or maybe come in later so you can go to the gym first thing in the morning. Perhaps you work from home part of the week to be more available to your aging mother. There would be no negative repercussions to your career--in fact, your boss would be fully supportive. Your colleagues wouldn't complain about special treatment because they, too, would be afforded the same flexibility. You feel saner, calmer, and more in control, right?

Sadly, this is not the reality in workplaces--even those filled with professionals, managers, and technical workers who regularly work at home at night and on weekends to catch up on heavy workloads. Most employees have little say over the hours and location of their work. As a result, many feel overwhelmed by the pressures of their jobs, stressed out and burnt out.

Meanwhile, those "lucky" enough to have a flextime accommodation, such as permission to telecommute or work a compressed week, are often penalized and less likely to get promoted or receive raises.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. Our new research shows that employees who have a voice in their work schedules have greater levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of stress, and feel less conflicted about managing work and personal responsibilities. They are also happier on the job, which helps them work smarter and be more engaged employees.

This isn't necessarily surprising: Study after study suggests that employees with flexibility and support for their lives outside of work tend to feel better about their jobs and less stressed. Studies also show that organizational changes that improve employees' flexibility bring benefits to employers by increasing productivity and decreasing absenteeism and turnover.

But our research provides much stronger evidence because it is one of the first true experiments in a U.S. workplace. Rather than looking at the impact of flexibility across companies with different demographics and industries, we looked at how a single company's new initiative changed the wellbeing of its workers.

Our study, part of the Work, Family, and Health Network's experiments, followed over 700 employees and managers in the IT division at a Fortune 500 company over twelve months. Half the employees participated in a pilot program, where they discussed how they might work if they focused on results, rather than simply office face time.

Employees then implemented changes, which ranged from shifting their work schedules and working from home more to rethinking the number of meetings they attend, communicating via new technology tools, and doing a better job of anticipating periods of high demand, such as around software releases. Managers in the pilot group received additional training meant to encourage their support for the personal life and professional development of their team members. Our control group was governed by the company's preexisting policies.

In our study, employees who were in the pilot program reported increased job satisfaction and decreased their risk of burnout. They were both happier about the work they did and less likely to feel used up and exhausted at the end of the day. These employees were also much more likely to feel like they had control over their schedules, greater support from their bosses, and enough time to spend with their families. The organizational initiative appeared to inspire other changes, including better sleep. Parents in the pilot program spent more time with their teen kids, and their adolescents also reported better sleep than the children of the control group parents.

Business blogs and magazines are chock full of advice for workers on how to juggle their work and busy personal lives. Write a daily to-do list! Learn to meditate! Check email only twice a day! But individual coping strategies alone won't solve the problem.

Just as we all can benefit from making changes in our lives to work more efficiently or improve our health, organizations must also acknowledge that they, too, must change.

Today's organizations cling to an outmoded template of work predicated on the 1950s notion that every white-collar worker has a full-time homemaker at his disposal. But the economy has changed; the way we work has changed; the composition of the workforce has changed; and family structures have changed. Something has to give. Organizational initiatives, especially programs that promote greater flexibility and control for workers as well as greater supervisor support, are needed.

The research is clear: flexibility programs done right work. They benefit workers; they benefits families; and they benefit companies. It's time Corporate America got the memo.

Erin L. Kelly is a Professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and affiliated with the Institute for Work and Employment Research. Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota and is currently a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.