Flexwork is pervasive and employees obviously love it, but is it universally good for business and work management? The Fast Track investigates.
According to a recent survey conducted by WorldatWork and FlexJobs, over 80 percent of American organizations have implemented some type of flexible work arrangement. Shockingly, though, only three percent of those same organizations are measuring whether flextime actually makes people more productive and more likely to positively contribute to the bottom line.
This leads us to ask the critical question: “is flexwork worth it?”
Over the last three years, multiple pieces of research have offered clues to the answer. First, let’s look at the lay of the land. The WorldatWork/FlexJobs study provided a good framework for what flexwork actually looks like in American organizations today. First, 64 percent of companies described their flex programs as informal, with no written policy, and 44 percent of organizations said they do not feature or market flexible work options as an employee benefit.
Sixty-seven percent of respondents reported that managers can offer flexibility at their own discretion, and 41 percent of respondents said that access to flexible work is not widespread. The top three flexibility programs across all types of organizations are telework on an ad-hoc basis, flextime, and part-time schedules. So, flexwork comes in all shapes and sizes and is not an equal-opportunity benefit.
Some organizations are more amenable to flexwork than others, and some reasons may be how efficient and automated work processes are, if workers have the tools available to them to better collaborate remotely, and if processes are optimized or not. Download the free Playbook: Overcoming the Hurdles of Manual Processes in the Workplace to learn how your team can improve how it works.
The Productivity Question
The WorldatWork/FlexJobs study was one of several that examined work management and the relationship between flexwork and productivity. Forty-eight percent of managerial respondents reported that teleworkers are equally as productive as in-office workers, and 42 percent of the same sample said they believe flexibility is essential to organizational success. To me, these results indicate that flexwork is often, but not always effective.
Nicholas Bloom, well-known Stanford University economics professor, was one of the first to conduct a scientific inquiry into the efficacy of working from home. Bloom’s study compared the productivity of Chinese call-center employees who worked at home with that of those who worked in a firm-sponsored office.
Bloom found that at-home workers answered more calls and worked more hours (adding up to a 13 percent overall increase in productivity) because they took shorter breaks and used less sick leave. They also reported being happier than the office workers, and fewer of them quit.
In an article for WorkFlexibility.org, Greg Kratz cited recent statistics compiled by Global Workplace Analytics that focus on large companies. At AT&T, telecommuters worked five more hours at home than office workers, while JD Edwards teleworkers were 20 percent more productive than in-office colleagues. And work-from-home American Express employees were a whopping 43 percent more productive than in-office ones.
Vodafone research was similarly in favor of the connection between flexwork and productivity. According to Peter Crush at the UK-based HR nonprofit CIPD, Vodafone’s 2016 survey questioned 8,000 employers from small and medium-sized businesses, public sector organizations, and multinational corporations in 10 different countries.
This research showed that 61 percent of global employers believed flexwork helped increase company profits, and 58 percent believed flexible working policies have had a positive impact on their organization’s reputation.
Given that the study was conducted by a telecommunications company, it’s not surprising that respondents said they were using high-speed mobile data services to get the biggest bang out of the flexwork buck. Over 60 percent of respondents said their staff access work applications via home-based broadband, and 24 percent said employees use a mobile data connection via their smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Despite these positive signals, however, global organizations aren’t completely sold on flexwork. Twenty percent of Vodafone’s respondent companies had not yet implemented a flexible working policy, and 22 percent said they hesitate to, believing that employees would not work as hard in a flexwork system and that work would be unfairly distributed between flexible and non-flexible employees. This is a concern I have heard from several managers here in the U.S., especially when flex workers have children and non-flex workers do not.
Speaking of countries, Vodafone reported some cultural differences. For instance, over 70 percent of Spanish employee respondents said they use their own smartphones to work flexibly outside the workplace compared with 38 percent of employee respondents in the UK and 27 percent in Germany. The perception of flexible workers as slackers varied too. Only eight percent of UK employers were concerned about employees not working as hard because of flexible working policies compared with 33 percent in Hong Kong.
Productivity Begets Other Benefits
Of course, productivity gains can’t be viewed in a bubble. High productivity tends to be associated with other work management metrics such as employee engagement and retention. To that end, one of the most intriguing flexwork studies to date was conducted by University of Minnesota sociologists Erin Kelly, Phyllis Moen, Wen Fan, and other interdisciplinary collaborators from across the U.S., and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2014 study, published in the American Sociological Review, was the first randomized, controlled study comparing similar groups of employees within one company on the benefits of flexible work.
The researchers worked with a sample of 700 employees from the IT department of a large Fortune 500 corporation. Half of the test subjects were offered the chance to work flexibility via a program modeled after ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment. Since the early aughts, ROWE has been implemented in companies from Best Buy to Gap and focuses on employee performance rather than hours clocked.
The flexible work program was offered to everyone in the test group, not just the best performers or those who asked. This half of the group had greater control over when and where they worked, as well as increased supervisor support for their personal lives and family. The other half of the test subjects worked under their normal conditions, which involved access to a work-from-home option that employees could request with limited success.
The Minnesota study found that workers in the first group experienced significant improvements over the six-month study period. They cited a decrease in work-family conflict, better work/life fit or an improvement in perceived time adequacy (a feeling that they had enough time to be with their families), and a greater sense of schedule control. Although productivity was not quantitatively measured here, it came up time and time again when the flexwork subjects talked about their experiences.
Let’s Not Kill the Office Just Yet
The available research definitely comes out on the side of flexwork being beneficial to business. Nevertheless, many leaders are still not convinced, including Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, who eventually killed the ROWE program there. His rationale? Flexwork systems like ROWE almost exclusively rely on the delegation style of management, and not all employees respond equally well to that.
My instinct is to conclude that flexwork makes MANY employees more productive. This has been measured already and can likely be measured further. However, the results will not be uniform for all types of employees in all types of organizations. Joly’s right that there are some employees who are going to operate more efficiently with greater direction, and with someone looking over their shoulder. As technology enabling flexwork becomes more pervasive, organizations will have to decide how to customize arrangements in a way that allows every employee to reach his or her potential.