Moving Past the “Mother-May-I” Approach to Workplace Flexibility

Many companies are beginning to change the way they operate in order to reduce employee stress. In doing so they are recognizing that excessive stress is not only bad for employee health and happiness but it’s also a drag on productivity and the bottom line.

Some of the most promising initiatives in this area are focused on creating a workplace culture which acknowledges that employees have a life outside of the office and demonstrates the company’s interest in supporting that personal life.

For example, the accounting firm BDO USA brought employees and senior executives together to brainstorm about how they could promote a more flexible workplace to improve the company’s performance. One idea they came up with was to launch an extensive internal education campaign to highlight successful flexible work arrangements on their internal social media. They also asked senior managers to talk about these successes whenever they spoke to employees.

In doing so, BDO consciously avoided the mistake made by so many companies who put flexibility initiatives in place but do not devote adequate resources to promoting encouraging employees to use them.

They focused on flexibility because, when done correctly, giving employees more control over where and when they do their work results in both employee health and happiness improvements and in the successful accomplishment of work objectives.

The value of flexibility has been documented by the research of Phyliss Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization at M.I.T. who have been studying the relationship between work, family and health for more than a decade.

In one of their studies, Moen and Kelly assigned half of the employees in an (anonymous) corporation’s technology department to a control group which continued to operate under the company’s usual policy, i.e. flexibility was given at the manager’s discretion. The other half of employees (the experimental group) were told that they could work wherever and whenever they wanted so long as projects were completed on time and their goals were met.

In addition, managers were encouraged to be supportive of their employees’ personal lives both through formal training programs and by twice daily text reminders to think about ways to be flexible in accommodating employees as they managed their work and home obligations.

The results confirmed that the employees in the experimental group were not only happier, sleeping better, less stressed and healthier but they also were meeting their goals as reliably as the control group.

The study’s authors believe that the “mother-may-I approach” to flexibility (that relies on manager discretion) is an obstacle to many people acting on the policy. They would like to see a change in corporate culture that promotes flexibility as a highly visible alternative at work, “a default mode rather than a privilege.”

Companies have come a long way in understanding that building a high performance work culture and recruiting the best people means finding ways to provide employees more flexibility and control over how they fit together their work and personal lives.

We still have a long way to go, however, as revealed in a 2015 survey showing that while 96% of all employees say they have some degree of workplace flexibility, only 56% say that their employer has a strong commitment to the practice. Too many organizations are missing out on the full transformative benefits of flexibility by offering tepid support and half-hearted training.

There is a big cultural difference between simply allowing flexible work arrangements and being committed to them. Companies who are “all-in” on flexibility are celebrating that difference and reaping the benefits of a more desirable workplace.

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