MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Modern workplace: How MIT is expanding its flex work guidelines

Contributed by Dr. Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, Executive Education, MIT Sloan School of Management

Flex Work

A couple of years ago, the Office of Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management began testing a fundamentally new approach to how, where and when our people work--by developing a set of team-based, flexible work guidelines that engage the entire team instead of making individual accommodations. The pilot proved highly successful and later served as a model for a number of pilot programs on flexible arrangements, now managed through MIT Human Resources, across MIT. We are very pleased with this accomplishment, and with the support and enthusiasm of our colleagues in the Human Resources departments at MIT Sloan and MIT.

Fierce Competition for Talent


Some academic institutions may be hotbeds of innovation, yet when it comes to developing and adopting workplace policies to accommodate today's workers, higher education has been lagging behind other industries, according to the widely publicized Gallup report “State of the American Workplace, 2017.” This is a serious concern for us at MIT, as we compete with industry in retaining and recruiting the best talent across our departments, labs and centers. From industry giants like Google, Biogen, and Akamai, to scores of exciting startups--many fueled by their proximity to MIT--Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., is a battleground for top talent. As the economy picks up and people feel more confident about their careers, we have to step up our efforts to continue to be among America's best employers (MIT was ranked #12 in the Forbes 2016 survey.) (Image: Copyright © 2017 Gallup, Inc.)

Exception Becomes the Rule

The Gallup report was very clear on what American employers need to do to not only hire and keep the best talent--but to keep employees engaged and productive.

As MIT Sloan professor Zeynep Ton points out, engaged employees are, in fact, more productive, which leads to more business value for employers. Ton teaches in The Good Jobs Strategy: Delivering Superior Value to Customers, Shareholders, and Employees, a new program designed to help leaders of service businesses understand how they can manage operations where everyone wins.

It's no surprise that life-work balance is one of the key factors that today's workers value, even above pay and job security. That is not to say that people want to work less--what they want is more control over how, where, and when they work. In other words, workers want work flexibility.

The term "flexible work" (and its many variations) has been around for ages, and can mean different things to different people. Many organizations--including MIT--have had flexible work policies for a long time, too. Many of us might have that one colleague who works from home on Fridays or a boss who only comes to the office for meetings. In a typical office, people are expected to show up at a co-located place for roughly the same time period, with exceptions being made on a case-by-case basis; and the general idea of flex work is something of a "favor" to be bestowed upon a few lucky employees by enlightened bosses. Yet, the modern workplace is changing--it's mobile, geographically dispersed, and virtually connected.

Apply, Evaluate, Iterate

Overt and transparent flex work policies are a fairly recent development. First popularized by high-tech companies, then adopted by large professional services firms, flex work is becoming less of a novel idea and more of what people come to expect from a modern employer.

Being MIT, we are not likely to jump on the latest trend just because something is in vogue in Silicon Valley. Instead, we test different models, analyze the data, and iterate our approaches based on the findings. MIT began thinking about its policies and support regarding job flexibility as a result of data from our Quality of Life Survey, which MIT Council on Family and Work conducts every four years to gather employee input on many aspects of work, including flexibility, and inform HR policy decisions Institute-wide.

We are delighted to say that our own small department's ongoing experiment with flexible work policies also helped move forward a major update of MIT's Job Flexibility policy in 2016 and paved the way to a larger, Institute-wide series of pilot programs in flex work.

Four years ago, the Office of Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management was relocating to a new space that was just a little too far from the main campus to walk in bad weather, but too close to drive; a time sink, either way. Regardless of location, the endless Boston-Cambridge construction and heavy traffic tend to make getting to and from the office on time every day a serious challenge. As a group, we had to think hard about changing the way we work to continue to serve our clients and program participants, while not wasting our time--and productive work hours--in traffic. We've already had people attending meetings on and off campus, traveling for business, and engaging in location-independent work practices in general. It seemed ludicrous not to accept that fact and embrace it.

Remote work looked like a natural answer, and to do this effectively, we had to come up with technological solutions that enabled smooth collaboration among colleagues wherever they may be located. And though we are happy with our telepresence robots, virtual meetings, and instant communications, technology alone can't guarantee effective collaboration and productivity. We needed a whole new approach that would work for everyone in the group, regardless of where we are.

First Step Toward New Organizational Strategy

While our office was struggling with travel between multiple locations, the HR department at Sloan was evaluating its polices related to flexible work. "We’ve had a flexible work policy at MIT for years, but the conversation that we were having now was about how we might start using it more consistently in the future," says Bill Garrett, Executive Director Human Resources at Sloan. "How could we move beyond just doing flexible work schedules as an accommodation to individual requests by employees, which was the primary way it was being used at the time, to thinking more strategically about flexible work?" He and his colleague Lucy Lui, Director of Human Resources, engaged a work-life consulting firm to facilitate a series of working sessions for managers at MIT Sloan. We attended a presentation by the firm's president and were intrigued by their approach to flexible work.

Team-Based Approach

To be sure, for flexible work to work, it is essential that a group's manager is open to it. The 2012 MIT Quality of Life Survey found that "employees who have a supervisor open to flexible work arrangements have … significantly lower rates of having an intention to leave MIT." That's great, but a manager cannot force people to work in a different way, not effectively, anyway.

Effective flex work is a team effort, from start to finish. The entire team needs to buy into the idea in full confidence that the new policies reflect everyone's interests and serve the group's business goals. Our team's experience has been very successful. As we've been happy to report on many occasions, 100% of our staff at least occasionally make use of flexible working informally, two-thirds have made a formal flexible work arrangement, and our entire team has said they would recommend that other departments and organizations consider implementing comprehensive flex work policies.

Proven Success

The results of the 2012 Quality of Life survey brought to light the importance of flexible work to employee satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty to the organization. "The policies we had were written in 2004 and they focused largely on flexible work schedules and a little bit on telecommuting," says Marianna Pierce, Policy and Compliance Specialist at MIT Human Resources. "We realized we needed our policies to address remote work directly."

At that time, our pilot at Executive Education was ending, and the results surpassed even my expectations:

  • 90 percent of the team said that their family and personal life improved.
  • 85 percent agreed that their stress was reduced.
  • 80 percent said that morale and engagement improved.
  • 62 percent felt more trusted and respected.
  • 93 percent believed that collaboration was better than before.

The success of our pilot helped Sloan HR to devise a plan for other teams across Sloan and the institute. Three different groups have begun flexible work pilots of their own, and plans for more are underway. Today, MIT employs approximately 12,110 people, including faculty, across our various--and highly diverse--departments, labs and centers. We are all MIT, but business needs, team structures and organizational cultures vary widely from group to group.

Creating flexible work guidelines to address and effectively accommodate these varied needs across MIT was no small task for these groups and HR. While the model we implemented worked well for us--because it was the first pilot, we were fortunate to have the help of a consultant--bringing in outside experts to help with every department’s wish to get onboard with flexibility would be untenable and impractical on a larger scale. "What we really needed to do was build internal capacity here in the MIT HR Department to guide and support our departments, labs and centers," says Ronnie Mae Weiss, Senior Work-Life Manager at MIT's Work-Life Center. "A team of internal HR facilitators, who are Human Resources Officers (HROs) and Work-Life professionals, really shows MIT's investment in having internal people who can broadly replicate these pilots moving forward."

The policy from 2004 was supplemented by Guidelines, in the form of a 28-page PDF, which provided useful information, but HR practitioners didn't think it was as user-friendly as it should be in this day and age. The cross-MIT committee in charge of the update rewrote the policy, so that it directly addresses both flexible schedules and off-site work--Personnel Policy Manual Sec. 3.1.1. The committee then transformed the 28-page Guidelines from 2004 into a website with tools and resources, access to various online trainings and articles that make requesting and managing flexibility easier for employees and for managers. "We felt that having all of that information in one place not only made it more easily accessible but also made it more transparent, so both managers/supervisors and employees can see what the process looks like for each other," says Anna Robinson, Special Projects Administrator at the MIT Work-Life Center.

Future Workforce

One of the major findings in the Gallup "State of the American Workplace, 2017" report was "an evolving employee attitude about what a job should and should not be," particularly among Millennials, who "want their job to fit their life." In 2015, Millennials have surpassed Gen-Xers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, according to a Pew Research Center study, and responding to their needs and expectations should be top of mind for any forward-thinking organization.

According to MIT HR, over 25 percent of MIT staff today are Millennials. "They are the future of our workforce and the future leaders of our Institute," says Weiss. "And they are asking for flexibility and more work-life balance. For them, the flexibility and work-life balance are key. So, when we look at that, we know that it's what people are asking for and we are beginning to address it."

MIT's HROs and Work-Life professionals see the three new pilots as an opportunity to learn and continuously improve how MIT's departments, labs, and centers address flexible work. "We already are looking at the number of users reading the policies and guidelines, and what action is being taken," says Weiss. "We are collecting that data and I think we will have real evaluation data to analyze once these pilots are over. And we'll learn from that. And we'll adjust our future and support based on what we will learn. So we will be listening carefully and really evaluating in a very thorough way, because that's the only way that you get better at what you're doing--you listen to other people and analyze that data and see what it means, and see what it means in comparison to other pilots."

Living Documents

Our new Flexible Work policy is not set in stone. Rather, it's a collection of "living documents," a term that, I think, accurately reflects the nature and purpose of these guiding principles. To make this work, each team or business unit needs to come up with its own interpretation of guiding principles. The policy may change periodically, but the guiding principles are meant to be reviewed frequently and regularly and be updated based on the evolving needs of an organization or a team.

Who knows, we at Executive Education might be updating our guidelines this time next year or a year after that based on the experience of other groups and their pilots. The three other pilots are running now and we will have more data to share later this year.

This entry was posted in on Tue Jun 20, 2017 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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