Imagine gathering your team to announce that you plan to analyze every aspect of their workday — from methods of intraoffice communication to whether they work from home or attend meetings in person — looking for ways to increase productivity and job satisfaction. How would it turn out?
That’s exactly what happened in a 2016 study of a Fortune 500 company whose employees participated in a pilot work flexibility program. In research published in the American Sociological Review, MIT Sloan professor of work and organization studies Erin L. Kelly and University of Minnesota professor Phyllis Moen spent 12 months following 876 information technology workers at the company.
Half of the workers participated in the program, which included shifting work schedules, working from home, rethinking the number of daily meetings employees attended, and promoting more communication using remote channels such as instant messenger. Supervisors were trained to provide support for this work-life recalibration. Meanwhile, a control group was subjected to the company’s prior policies.
At the end of the trial, the results were clear: Pilot employees reported feeling more control over their schedules, experienced more supervisory support, and were more likely to say they had enough time to spend with family. Most importantly, they reported greater job satisfaction and less psychological distress.
Workers want maximum flexibility
Beyond salary and health care, which are always top priorities, workers crave control over their schedules, which really means control over their lives. In survey after survey, time-related benefits such as telework and vacation — and for hourly workers, fair scheduling and sufficient hours — top the list of employee priorities.
A 2017 Gallup survey found 51% of employees were currently looking for new opportunities, citing schedule flexibility as a prime factor.
Gallup reported in 2017 that 51% of employees were currently looking for new opportunities, citing flexibility as a prime factor. Flexibility can take many forms: telework, compressed work weeks, job sharing.
Along the same lines, a recent employee benefits survey from consumer research firm Fractl found that aside from health care, the top four benefits 2,000 surveyed workers desired were all time-related: more flexible hours, more vacation, more work from home options, and unlimited vacation.
And according to the 2019 MetLife Employee Benefit Trends Study, 72% of 2,500 employees surveyed listed unlimited time off as the No. 1 “emerging benefit” they’d be most interested in.
Meanwhile, a survey on job satisfaction and engagement from the Society for Human Resource Management found a vast majority (92%) of employees reported that paid leave is important to their overall job satisfaction but that just 73% reported being satisfied with the paid leave offered at their organization.
Remote work, on the other hand, appeared to be on the rise. More than two-thirds (70%) of organizations indicated they offered some type of telework, either on a full-time, part-time and/or ad hoc basis, up from 62% in 2015 and 59% in 2014.
The SHRM report concluded that flexible working benefits such as telecommuting, flextime and compressed workweeks, encourage work-life balance and could result in higher productivity and more engaged employees.
Why better scheduling is a win-win
Zeynep Ton has spent much of her career examining successful companies such as Costco and Mercadona, which established strong track records of employee retention by paying healthy wages and offering full-time hours. Ton, MIT Sloan adjunct associate professor of operations management, focuses her research primarily on lower wage workers. She reported that one of the major reasons why such workers leave their jobs involved take-home pay — keeping in mind that take-home pay is affected by the number of hours available to workers and by transparent scheduling.
“When I see [employees] leave a job for another one, it's oftentimes because they can't take care of their families. They don't have health insurance, they don't see themselves moving up in the organization, and they want a better life. It's their basic needs being met — basic needs around take-home pay, schedules, career paths, and benefits,” said Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.
Ton noted that unsuccessful retailers tend to react to lower customer traffic by understaffing, or cutting hours when things are slow. But treating workers as a cost to be minimized through shrinking schedules has a dangerous ripple effect.
“It is downright brutal on workers, from their wages and their schedules to their treatment and dignity,” Ton said.
Successful companies offer regular schedules even if this means occasionally overstaffing. Workers who aren’t busy coping in an understaffed environment can spend downtime looking for ways to improve and innovate — and they feel valued enough to do so, which can only boost company performance, Ton argued.
Overcoming the “flexibility stigma”
To Ton’s point, none of these time-related benefits will work if companies view them as a detriment to their bottom line rather than a benefit that increases productivity, job satisfaction, and loyalty (and potentially even helps companies lower their health care costs by having less stressed employees).
As Lotte Bailyn, MIT Sloan work and organization studies professor emerita, noted in a 2015 Strategy + Business interview, “Joan Williams coined the term flexibility stigma to explain this phenomenon."
Williams is founding director of the Center for Work–Life Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.
"Even though research (and practice) has shown that flexible arrangements work well both for people and for productivity … it conflicts with many organizations’ view of their workers as a cost,” Bailyn said.
And this perceived bias affects both men and women, as new research from the University of Michigan published in the journal Sociological Perspectives uncovered. In a survey of 2,700 men and women, nearly 40% felt that workers at their jobs were unlikely to get ahead when they asked for time off — even men without caregiving responsibilities who never used flextime.
The same double standard applies to unlimited paid time off, Bailyn wrote in 2013. In a climate where workers are tethered to the office remotely or in person, and work-life balance is strongly dictated by company culture, few employees are emboldened to make use of such an ambiguous offering, and many feel guilty.
“When vacation time is offered as an unlimited resource, many people decide not to take advantage because it’s too hard to figure out the right amount to take. At a time when top-level professionals view the traditional 40-hour week as a part-time job that amounts to career suicide … unlimited vacation time may be more confusing than helpful,” she warned.
Instead, Bailyn argued, it’s more important for leaders to model clear norms around time off, without guesswork.
“Employees need guidelines. A mandatory minimum of two weeks of vacation might be a good starting point,” she wrote. “Employers can help by demanding that people take vacations and modeling it themselves. But allowing unlimited vacation time will only work if reasonable norms are established and acted on by executives and managers as well as their subordinates.”
To shift schedules, start by shifting mindsets
Cultural devaluation of autonomy can be dangerous, prompting workers to leave or causing psychological repercussions. As Kelly and Moen uncovered, workplace culture — not merely policies — must change. But workplaces are wary of embracing flexibility: Managers worry about doling out favors or special treatment, and employees worry about appearing unserious if they ask for flextime.
“The worker thinks, ‘If I ask for special treatment, it will kill my career, and I won't 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 stated in a release.
But, she concluded, “Our research demonstrates that workers who are allowed to have a voice in the hours and location of their work not only feel better about their jobs, but also less conflicted about their work-to-family balance. Crucially, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job. In other words, workplace flexibility is beneficial — not detrimental — to organizations.”
Now management’s mindset simply has to catch up to the research.