How to Make Flexible Work Schedules a Reality

A new study makes the case for burning down the 9-to-5.

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Photographer: Getty Images

The flexible work schedule is the unicorn of work-life balance. 

Surveys have found that more than half of employers offer some sort of flexible work arrangement, from telecommuting to flex time. But many of the employees that take advantage of that flexibility say they're made to feel like slackers. An Ernst & Young survey concluded that one in 10 workers in the U.S. have "suffered a negative consequence as a result of having a flexible work schedule." There's a perception that time spent in the office correlates with dependability and responsibility, studies have determined. Because of the stigma, participation rates for these flexible schemes are low—around 12 percent, according to a study issued late in 2015. 

A new study offers a blueprint for rethinking the 9-to-5. When workers have control over their own schedules, it results in lower levels of stress, psychological distress, burnout, and higher job satisfaction, researchers at the University of Minnesota and MIT found. Their findings will be published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.

While the researchers didn't measure productivity, worker happiness tends to correlate to high performance. Burnout, for example, leads to more absenteeism, according to research. Another study found that high stress leads to low engagement. 

For a year, the researchers studied 850 employees who had been randomly assigned to one of two groups in the IT department of a Fortune 500 company. About half worked the standard straight-through, a 45 or 50 hour workweek, with not much room for working from home or other flexible working arrangements. The other half participated in a program called STAR—an acronym for "support, transform, achieve, results"—in which people were given a degree of autonomy over when, how, and where they worked.

At the outset of the study, teams in the STAR program sat down with their managers to discuss alternative schedules. Each team came up with schedules that fit their specific projects, while also reducing what the study calls "low value work" such as useless meetings. For some, that meant getting to the office at 11:00 a.m. after taking kids to school or going to the gym. Others left in the middle of the day for doctor's appointments. The schedules varied from day-to-day. Workers could do what they wanted as long as they finished their work. To avoid the stigma issue, managers underwent training to learn to focus on results, rather than hours put into work. Supervisors also learned to be more supportive of their employees' personal lives. 

The workers who participated in STAR didn't work fewer hours, as some might expect, merely different ones. The quality of work didn't decrease, either. That's not necessarily surprising, since most people don't spend all nine hours of a workday working, and many studies have established the benefits of breaks.

What did change was how people felt. The people who participated in STAR reported improved overall well-being. The researchers attribute the results to having a "sense of control," rather than to any single difference in what they did, said Phyllis Moen, one of the researchers and a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. "They did not have to ask permission," she said. Being treated as adults who know how and when to get work done, it turns out, makes people feel better about their jobs. 

Working Americans feel overwhelmed. A Pew report from November described most working parents as stressed, tired, and overworked. Those who can hack it make their own flexible schedules to deal with increasing responsibilities. A study from last spring revealed that a group of men at a high-profile, unidentified consulting firm made their own flexible work schedules, without telling bosses or co-workers. Those men, the research found, outperformed their co-workers; they got promotions and high performance reviews and still were home for dinner with their families at 5:30 p.m. The behavior, although it received a lot of negative attention when the study came out, isn't uncommon elsewhere. 

"People seek out flexibility in all kinds of jobs today," said Erin Kelly, one of the researchers who conducted the study and a professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. These ad-hoc attempts at making it work often have downsides. "They worry about if there are career consequences for working in this different way. They feel like a deviant in this organization that has standardized expectations. They might pursue the flexibility under the radar and craft it in a way that works for them and allows them to manage the different responsibility in their lives. That's risky, and they could be found out. It doesn't change the rules of the game."

What the STAR study showed was that when the rules changed, all employees—not just a few brazen men—benefited, and employers didn't suffer. "This was very popular for people who were single, married, caregiving, and those who had other interests in life and simply spend more time with their dog or whatever," said Moen, who added that the effects on burnout and job satisfaction were positive for women and men of all ages. "It's important that we not focus on sub-populations and improve working conditions and the quality of work life experience for all workers."

The study proved that an organization can change, but the researchers said that such a radical transformation of the workday will be met with resistance by many. There are always certain jobs that people insist can't be molded to a new way of working. Deeply ingrained cultural associations with work and at-desk hours will be hard to overcome. 

The present-day work schedule is "organized for a workforce of the mid-1950s when white-collar and blue-collar men had homemaking wives. It's just not possible to do it all without burning out or getting sick," Kelly said. "What we tried to do is figure out how can we make the quality of work environment better." 

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