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Workplace flexibility's win-win streak

working from home

The push for flexibility is ever present in the workforce. People want to have more say in how they organize their time and orchestrate their day and, as a result, remote work is widely gaining traction as a viable way of conducting business by many companies, large and small. Just 20 years ago, only 9% of U.S. workers worked from home on occasion. Today, that number has risen to 37%, and the number of people telecommuting full-time has grown 103% over the last 10 years.

"Job seekers consistently report that telecommuting is the most desired form of flexible work, with many willing to take a pay cut, forfeit vacation time, or give up matching retirement savings plans for a telecommuting work arrangement," said Sara Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of FlexJobs, the leading online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible schedule, part-time, and freelance jobs. Fell is also the founder of Remote.co, a resource that provides expert insight, best practices, and valuable support for organizations exploring or already embracing a remote team as a significant portion of their workforce.

"In fact, millennials, who now comprise the largest generation in the workforce, placed flexible working ahead of other priorities such as professional development training, reputation of the companies’ leaders, and a sense of purpose when evaluating a job prospect," said Fell.

Companies can attract and retain talent by offering flexible work opportunities. And studies continue to show that teleworkers are more productive and satisfied with their job than their office counterparts.

New findings make the case for flexible work arrangements

New research released earlier this year found that workers partaking in a workplace flexibility program at a Fortune 500 company were happier and less burned out than employees at the same company who chose not to participate.

The study was co-authored by researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Minnesota and was the first time a randomized controlled trial was used to measure the effects of workplace flexibility at a U.S. company.

MIT Sloan professor Erin L. Kelly and University of Minnesota professor Phyllis Moen split employees from the IT division of a Fortune 500 company into two separate programs before observing them for a year. Half of the 700 employees participated in a pilot program called "STAR: Office," where they engaged in flexible work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives. The initiative focused on results, rather than face time at the office. Managers in the STAR program also received training on how to show more support for their employees' work preferences and personal lives.

Meanwhile, the other half of the IT department was excluded from the training and stayed in the company's pre-existing 9-5 schedule as a control group. The results were definitive, say Moen and Kelly: employees who participated in the organizational initiative said they felt more control over their schedules, support from their bosses, and were more likely to say they had enough time to spend with their families. Moreover, these employees reported greater job satisfaction and were less burned out and less stressed. They also reported decreases in psychological distress.

And there's more. FlexJobs recently conducted a survey of more than 3,000 respondents interested in work flexibility. Survey findings include:

  • Only 7% of workers say the office, during traditional work hours, is their location of choice for optimum productivity on work-related projects.
  • 65% of workers think they would be more productive telecommuting than working in a traditional workplace.
  • Respondents attribute remote work productivity to fewer interruptions from colleagues (76%), fewer distractions (75%), and less frequent meetings (69%). (It’s estimated that up to six hours a day are lost on work interruptions.)
  • Other reasons people prefer their home office include a reduction in office politics (68%), reduced stress from commuting (67%), and a more comfortable office environment (51%).
  • Work flexibility (80%) was ranked the most important job factor when evaluating a job prospect.
  • Work-life balance and salary tied as the second most important factor (74%), ranked well above other factors such as health insurance (43%), company reputation (41%), and 401(k)/retirement benefits (31%).

"When the overwhelming majority of workers say that traditional office spaces are not conducive to inspiring their highest levels of productivity, something is clearly broken--certainly with the actual workplace environment, but more importantly with the corporate culture that isn't addressing this problem," said Fell. "Employers who continue to blindly reinforce antiquated ways of working are going to find themselves with lower performing, less engaged, and less happy employees, whereas those who explore more flexible workplace arrangements such as telecommuting and flexible schedule options are taking advantage of a great competitive opportunity for their company."

Flex work success at MIT

For almost two years now, MIT Sloan Executive Education's team of 35 employees has had the option of working remotely at least two days a week as part of our own flexible work program. In an article published to Entrepreneur.com, Associate Dean of Executive Education Peter Hirst reported on the extremely positive results of the flex work policy and shared some aspects of the program that he felt contributed to its success, such as an office culture partially defined by autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit.

He also emphasizes the importance of adequate support infrastructure for flexible work. "In planning for the implementation of this program, we identified key upgrades and adjustments needed for our staff," he writes. "The most important resources are, naturally, related to inter-office communication. To foster collaboration and maintain productivity, we started to use shared calendars, reliable video chat, and telepresence robots. These have not only maintained productivity and collaboration, but in many cases provided a drastic improvement to existing resources."

While we anticipated this new program would be of value to our teams, the extremely positive results for the organization were better than expected. We now have 100% participation from employees. An anonymous survey of our staff reported that 86% of employees felt reduced stress levels and 90% saw improved support for their personal/family life. Additionally, 79% have recorded an increase in employee morale and engagement, and 62% responded that their workload management had improved.

Not everyone feels the same way about flexible working arrangements. Some enjoy the traditional structure of a 9-to-5 schedule or place a premium on face-to-face collaboration. When launching, it's wise to institute some parameters that make the program truly viable. For example, at MIT, we encouraged all meetings to be held between the core hours of 10:30 am and 4:00 pm. And because in-person meetings are also a necessity on occasion, we established a policy that all face-to-face interactions be scheduled on Wednesdays, with exceptions for special cases.

"While our program has certainly come with new rules and expectations, it's clear to me that when you allow your employees to better organize their home lives, they can greatly improve their time at work and vice versa," says Hirst.

If you're considering launching a flexible work program at your company, you might be giving your organization a great competitive edge. And most certainly you’ll be giving employees more of what they long for--more control over their work schedule and their personal lives.

This entry was posted in Work-life balance on Sun Sep 04, 2016 by MIT Sloan Executive Education

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