Building Flexibility Into The Way We Work

by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen

Overworked? Overwhelmed? You’re not alone. Seventy percent of employed Americans say work interferes with their non-work lives. Over half feel they don’t have enough time with their children or spouses. This isn’t just one group: it’s mothers, fathers, married workers, singles, Boomers, GenXers and Millennials.

“Work-life balance” has been discussed for 40 years and many companies have tried to address the issue. Seventy-seven percent of workplaces with more than 50 employees allow some employees to change their schedules and 63% allow some regular work to be done at home. Unfortunately, flextime, telecommuting and shifting to part-time hours are usually provided as “accommodations” to help a few employees.

The root problem, of course, isn’t that employees have family or personal commitments. The root problem is the rigid conventions of work that assume work must occur at certain times and places and that mistakenly gauge productivity by the number of hours spent at work.

As part of the Work, Family & Health Network, we have studied an innovative approach that moves from understanding flexibility as an “accommodation” to redesigning work itself to benefit both work processes and personal lives.

Our research shows that this approach reduces stress (including work-family conflict) and promotes healthy behaviors (getting adequate sleep, going to the doctor when sick, reducing smoking, and increasing exercise). Companies also benefit from reduced turnover. These initiatives (and others with a collective approach) have succeeded in a variety of organizations.

Redesigning work to build in flexibility differs in three important ways from standard flexibility options now offered:

Flexibility is a collective effort with work redesign

In most workplaces, an employee asks permission and managers decide who can use flextime, telework or part-time options. This sets up a “Mother, May I?” dynamic, wherein a supportive supervisor may “accommodate” specific workers. But employees often end up being penalized in performance evaluations, raises or promotions when they work flexibly. As a result, many people stick with traditional work patterns and some flex “under the radar,” hiding their different schedules or occasional off-site work from everyone except their manager and immediate co-workers.

By contrast, with work redesign, whole teams or even whole organizations ask what might be done better and differently. Some teams cut back on unnecessary meetings or cross-train each other so customers can get quick responses while everyone has time to concentrate on projects. Employees might also come in after the morning rush hour, leave to volunteer for a child’s school activity, or work at different times and places, including at home. When the whole group makes changes — recognizing that those changes need to work for employees, teams and customers — it supports everyone’s personal and work commitments rather than singling out a few “flex workers.”

Employees and managers share in decisions

A work redesign approach increases employees’ say in when, where, and how work is done. This sense of control is key to the stress and health benefits we’ve found. With the standard approach, managers’ decisions about flex options sometimes seem arbitrary and employees know that a new manager may cancel the arrangements they had negotiated.

Both businesses and employees benefit

Work redesign emphasizes efficiency and effectiveness while benefiting workers. One of the IT professionals we interviewed showcases how these changes improved both his personal life and productivity. Sherwin was a single father who had worked “60 – 70-hour weeks” that “took a tremendous toll healthwise.” A heart attack pushed him to prioritize sleep, exercise and stress reduction. A work redesign initiative we studied enabled him to do so.

“I get a lot more work done more efficiently,” he said. “The time that I spend working is truly focused on work that can be measured.” Dropping “worthless” meetings and working at home some days helped Sherwin tame his long hours and still get the job done. “It seems like common sense,” he said of the new work patterns, “but for years we have worked in environments where there was so much red tape.”

Sherwin also sees how important it is to cut out “the perceptions that you need to be in the office between this time and this time. And [that] the longer you work, you must be a more dedicated employee.” Now, Sherwin reports, “Your work can speak for itself … The work that gets done is what really should be judged, and how you get it done is really up to you.”

To be sure, some workers, such as those in retail and service positions, need to do their work “at work.” The standard flexibility options don’t fit the needs of these workers, who interact with customers on site, work coordinated shifts and often need more hours to make ends meet. But imaginative redesign could mean rethinking jobs, such as having several people at a reception desk over the day, and revamping scheduling to give workers more stable and predictable hours with easy, transparent ways to change schedules.

To move beyond decades of discussing work-life balance to meaningful change, employers need to shift from one-off accommodations. It’s time to make working efficiently, creatively, sustainably and flexibly the new norm.

Erin L. Kelly is Associate Professor of Sociology & Life Course Center Director at at the University of Minnesota. Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post. It is part of a series produced by Stanford University’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, in conjunction with the latter’s “Redesigning, Redefining Work” summit (November 7-8). The summit aims to redesign work to better align with the needs and composition of today’s workforce, creating environments where workers and businesses thrive. For project information, click here.

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