This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the results of key studies on work-life balance, stress management, and productivity.
THE RECENT decision by IBM, a leader in remote work and flexible schedules, to bring many of its teleworkers back into the office has left human resource experts, not to mention employees, scratching their heads. IBM joined companies such as Yahoo and Aetna, which have made the same move.
Why would a savvy organization like IBM want to roll back flexibility when countless studies have shown that it improves performance and job satisfaction and that the core need of everyone is more autonomy, not less?
GROWING MORE FLEXIBLE
Flexibility is particularly important to a big chunk of the current workplace: millennials. Some 80% cite it at the top of their list of employer requirements. A recent Gallup study shows that telework is not going away; it’s booming. Some 43% of employees in the U.S. say they can work remotely at least part of the time. That’s a 4% increase since 2012.
Studies have shown that flexibility increases perceived work-life balance, which in turn reduces the stress of commuting, marital conflict, and money spent on childcare, opens up the pool of talent beyond the immediate geography of the company office, increases hours available to work and quality time to think without interruptions, allows employees to not burn up sick days while taking care of an ill child or aging parent (only 22% of sick days are used because the employee is sick), and boosts family time and productivity.
Some say that IBM’s recent lackluster revenue might be behind the call for employees to come back to the office. Others say that better collaboration requires more physical proximity. The strategy certainly didn’t work in the case of Yahoo.
NAVIGATING THE BREAK POINT
I thought it would be a good time to look at what the research actually says about flexibility—in particular one influential study using IBM employees as its subjects. It’s the first of an ongoing series on the Working Smarter blog here spotlighting key studies in the work-life balance, stress management, productivity, and engagement arenas. This particular study, “Finding an Extra Day a Week: The Positive Influence of Perceived Job Flexibility on Work and Family Life Balance” (Hill, Hawkins, Ferris, Weitzman 2001) examined the impact of flexible place and time on a cross-section of 6,451 IBM employees, and deserves more notice.
The study devised a clever gauge to measure the impact of flexible schedules on perceived work-family imbalance. They measured the number of work hours per week when employees experienced difficulty managing work and home responsibilities. They defined it as “the number of weekly paid work hours at which 50% of the sample responded they had a difficult time or very difficult time balancing the demands of their work and family life.” They called this the “break point.”
They also measured the weekly hours at which 25% of employees had trouble managing their work-life—the “balance point.” They did their calculations for each work group by setting work-family balance as equal to .50 or .25 and then measured those with and without “flexplace” and with and without flextime.
The researchers found, not surprisingly, that longer work hours corresponded to lower work-life balance, and flexibility was associated with higher perceived work-life balance. Only 28% of employees with flexplace and flextime had difficulty with work-life balance, compared to 46% of those with neither of those options. Twenty-nine percent of those with a choice of where they worked had trouble with work-family balance, while 40% of those without that option had work-family difficulty. The difference was larger for those with flextime. Just 29% of those with flextime had work-family problems, while 44% without it did.
Another interesting finding is that for hourly workers, who had the most rigid schedules, only 18% had work-family difficulties if they had flexplace and flextime, compared to 42% without it. The biggest advantage was for parents with preschoolers. The work-family break point for women with small children was 43 work hours per week, but without flexplace and time, it was 32 hours a week.
FLEX SCHEDULES INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY
We have known for a long time that flexibility in hours and locales not only increases employee satisfaction, but it also results in more hours worked, i.e., increased productivity. The same was true in this study. As the authors stated, “Employees with perceived flexibility in the timing and location of work were able to work longer hours than those without perceived flexibility before experiencing a difficulty in balancing their work and family life.
“For example, the break point and balance point for those with perceived flexibility in the timing of work were 60 hours per week and 44 hours per week, respectively. The break point and balance point for those without perceived flexibility in the timing of work were 52 hours per week and 41 hours per week, respectively.”
They concluded that the business payoff of perceived flexibility in the timing of work is a big one. It allows an employee to work “an extra day of work” before work-life balance becomes difficult—60 hours with flextime, 52 hours without flextime.
The data is compelling. Remote work and flextime work, which is why more and more companies are opting to offer it. We know this makes sense intuitively. People who feel they have more control over their work schedules have more perceived control over their lives. It’s lack of control that drives stress and overwhelm and the “spillover effect”of strain on work-family, as it’s called in the research.
The study spells it out. “Perceived job flexibility, given a reasonable workweek, enables more employees to have work-life balance (personal and family benefit) and also enables employees to work longer hours before impacting work-family balance (business benefit).”
That sounds like a big win-win to me. Regardless of IBM’s decision and that of a few others, the trajectory is for more flexibility to keep talent on board, particularly among millennial staffs and management. The digital tools and collaborative software, from Slack to Base Camp, make it possible to maximize performance while allowing employees to feel more effective and self-responsible in the process.
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