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Reinventing the Way We Work

Had enough of an office grind that demands all of your time and offers little flexibility or freedom? You may be destined to become part of a win-win workplace revolution — one that’s improving work-life balance and morale for employees and delivering improved results for the companies that employ them.

Rethinking Work

In 1978, when Greg Mullins first went to work at Potter and Company public accountants in Lexington, Ky., he knew the rules: Arrive at 8:30; stay at your desk until 5. If he completed his assigned tasks, he went to his supervisor for more work or further instructions.

“If the supervisor was with somebody else, I’d have to go back to my desk,” Mullins recalls. “I’d sit there and read a magazine, or maybe study for my CPA exam. I’d look out the window, and if it was a beautiful day, I’d say to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’”

It’s a question that millions of workers ask themselves every day while mired in a hybrid state of boredom and stress: at times overworked, at times twiddling their thumbs, all the while anxiously anticipating the myriad personal tasks that must be accomplished in the few hours left before bedtime.

The result can be an almost toxic disengagement from work, coworkers and the company’s mission. Still, the rule is clear: You work when and where you’re told.

In their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke — the Simple Change That Can Make Your Job Terrific (Portfolio, 2008), Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson describe it this way: “We go to work, give everything we have and are treated like children who, if left unattended, will steal candy.”

Today, many companies — dogged by the challenges of maintaining a stable and high-quality work force amid global competition and a wobbly economy — are recognizing that these outdated models leave much to be desired. Both workers and companies need something better. And increasingly, at least some of them are getting it.

These are the employers and employees who have been leading a quiet revolution: the work flexibility movement. It’s a trend toward more fully empowering workers, and then providing them with workplace options that support a better brand of work-life balance.

Some of the most common manifestations of work flexibility include flextime (adjustable starting and quitting times on a full-time schedule), compressed scheduling (often five days’ work in four), telecommuting, job sharing, guaranteed time off for personal needs, phased retirement and part-year work. There are also various schemes that readjust the work day, work month and work year, or even how a major phase of a career is planned.

A statistically representative 2005 survey of more than 1,000 businesses by the New York City–based Families and Work Institute (FWI) showed that 70 percent of the firms offered traditional flextime to some of their employees. Fifty-five percent of employers allowed some employees to shift between full-time and part-time schedules, and 44 percent allowed compressed workweeks and job sharing.

At many big companies, like Price Waterhouse, Intel, Deloitte and Touche, Continental Airlines, IBM, Eli Lilly, and GlaxoSmithKline, flexibility has become a signature policy. Six hundred of the 2,000 reservation agents at Continental Airlines’ Houston call center work from home. Tech giant Intel even offers its employees a paid two-month sabbatical every seven years.

It’s a well-researched and quite deliberate response to needs that have become more and more pronounced in recent years. A 2002 FWI study reported that well over half of all respondents felt like they didn’t have enough time for themselves or their families. “When you cannot feel in control of your life because of your work, you are stressed,” says Karol Rose, the Massachusetts-based chief knowledge officer of FlexPaths, a Web-based flexibility consultant for individuals and employers. And when you are stressed, she points out, you are at neither your personal nor professional best.

Research has connected this sort of frustration and stress with some of the most serious health problems we face. A seminal 1999 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, summarized 20 years of studies on the relationship between job stress and ill health, concluding that job stress was a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems and psychological disorders. Also, adds Thompson, “when you don’t have control of your time, you give up a lot of good things you would otherwise do, like exercising or cooking healthy meals for yourself and your kids.”

Greg Mullins’s colleague Craig Browning, currently the firm’s business development coordinator, got a dose of the flexibility revolution when he started work at Potter and Company in 2000 as an entry-level staff accountant. By that time the firm was a different place. It offered employees a “charge-hour budget” — a set number of hours they have to work on income-producing projects — and a lot of added control over their schedules. If an employee is on pace to meet his quotas ahead of time, for instance, he has even more flexibility, including the option to take days off.

Managers also work out a variety of individual agreements with staffers based on their circumstances, such as work-at-home arrangements for those with small children. “If somebody wants to take the entire summer off to be with their kids,” says Mullins, now the partner in charge of his office, “the company will do its best to work that out.”

Forces for Change

The move toward flexible work arrangements was sparked by the influx of women into the work force beginning in the 1960s. Businesses found themselves under increased pressure to accommodate the individual needs of mothers. At the same time, academic researchers began studying the impact of changing family structures on business and industry — as well as the effect of work structures on families and individuals.

“We discovered that the way work is designed in time and space is really an artifact from the mid-1930s, when our labor laws and employment laws were put into place,” says Kathleen Christensen, founder and director of the Program on the Workplace, Work Force, and Working Families at New York’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Policies from this period — when factory-based industrial jobs demanded on-site presence, and single-wage-earner families were the norm — are, says Christensen, “a total mismatch” for the changing needs of business and working families.

The current demand for flexibility, she notes, comes from all quarters: older workers of both genders, many of whom want to work past retirement age without being locked into the old paradigm; middle-agers caring for elderly parents; and Gen X and Y workers, for whom balance between personal life and work is practically a nonnegotiable demand.

Research on the benefits of progressive workplace strategies is ongoing, but anecdotal evidence suggests that where they are being embraced, they are paying dividends in employee loyalty and retention. The Continental call center, for example, has a 5 percent turnover rate, compared with 40 percent for the call center industry as a whole. A 16-person Tennessee executive search firm, Management Recruiters of Chattanooga-Brainerd, which offers employees scheduling options to handle family issues like child and elder care, reported zero sick days in 2007. And a 2007 study of a major pharmaceutical company renowned for its flexible workplace, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said of the company’s employees: “People who believe they have flexibility in their work lives have healthier lifestyles. Individuals who perceive an increase in their flexibility are more likely to start some positive lifestyle changes.”

A Question of Attitude

But workplace policies alone don’t tell the whole story. It’s about attitudes — and attitudes have to be, well, flexible. “An employer may have several flexible workplace policies on the books, but unless the culture of that organization sanctions use of flexibility without jeopardizing an employee’s career or without penalty, then the workplace policy is meaningless,” says Jennifer Swanberg, PhD, a work-life researcher and executive director of the Institute for Workplace Innovation at the University of Kentucky.

“In some organizations,” she notes, ”employees are hesitant to request a flexible work solution because of fear that they will be perceived by management as less committed or loyal to the organization. In fact, the opposite is often true. In some studies, flexibility enhances commitment, engagement and job satisfaction.”

There will always be differences from one industry to another and at different levels of an industry, Swanberg notes. “A store employee may simply have to be there for nine hours, so she won’t get flexibility there,” she says. “But what could she have? Maybe the ability to request certain shifts.”

That’s the approach the drugstore chain CVS has taken in recent years. Its “Snowbird” program, for instance, lets some 1,200 employees living and working in chilly parts of the country transfer to stores in, say, Florida for the winter. They arrange their own accommodations, some using the opportunity to enjoy an extended stay with relatives. Meanwhile, CVS’s southern stores, where business spikes during the winter tourism season, get a helping hand from experienced employees. “The program lets us save a lot of money in training costs by moving trained workers south,” says Stephen Wing, director for work-force initiatives at the Rhode Island–based retailer.

CVS also has been extending flexibility to the more than 63,000 former welfare recipients it has hired since the Welfare Reform Act of 1997 mandated stiffer eligibility requirements for government assistance. The company adjusts these “welfare-to-work” employees’ schedules around their community-college courses — many of which CVS has developed in collaboration with the colleges. The goal is to help the workers develop skills that benefit both them and the company.

That kind of mutual benefit underlines the way the flexibility movement works at its best: as a win-win situation for both management and employees rather than the zero-sum paradigm of more traditional labor relations.

Going ROWE

Since 2001, one of the most progressive workplaces in America has been the corporate headquarters of Best Buy, the Richfield, Minn.–based electronics retailer. Scott Jauman, who oversees the company’s services organization, says nearly 80 percent of his coworkers have adopted the most radical of all flexibility ideas, the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). These Best Buy corporate employees work when they want, where they want, and as many hours as they want — as long as the job gets done on time.

ROWE is the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former Best Buy staffers who were assigned the task of improving the company’s efficiency and who later wrote Why Work Sucks to promote their vision of a truly grown-up workplace.

Ressler and Thompson view much of what passes for flexibility in the American workplace as too limited, too tough to access and too much of a “gift” from management. ROWE, they claim, is about giving employees real power. To really thrive, adults need more than just flextime — they need time control, and the traditional types of workplace flexibility offer too little of that. “No matter how flexible a nontraditional schedule is, it’s still a schedule,” they write. “Which is why in a ROWE there are no schedules.”

Of course, ROWE — and many other forms of workplace flexibility — would have been unthinkable before the era of email, cell phones, videoconferencing tools like Skype and other digital aids. But even more important than this technology is how clearly management communicates its goals to employees. Under ROWE, executives set overall goals in the traditional way, in response to corporate strategy and customer demands. But managers and employees negotiate specific subgoals and deadlines.

“As an employee,” says Thompson, “I need to know how the manager is going to know when I have met the goal, and how I am going to know when I’ve met it.”

So, far from fleeing into isolation, ROWE-ers communicate frequently with their supervisors and with each other, by email and cell phone, to report on progress, to modify goals and to exchange ideas. They arrange meetings when necessary and perhaps labor late into the night after having spent the day with their families — anything goes as long as the work gets done. (Many ROWE-ers actually choose to come into the office regularly, though it’s not mandatory.)

But can managers be expected to manage operational goals so closely? Thompson laughs, noting that’s exactly what managers are supposed to be doing. “Managers actually have to manage,” she says, ”instead of spending a lot of time on whether Jim is at his desk or Joan is on break.”

What ROWE really demands, she says, is open and democratic communication: “If you feel you’ve been given an unrealistic goal by your boss, you have to say so and be prepared to explain why. In a traditional work environment, if you miss your goal it’s kind of all right, because you’re still putting in your time. In ROWE, if you feel you can’t reach your goal you’d better have a conversation right there in the moment” because you’re going to be held accountable for it. People who don’t like these sorts of interactions, she says, typically leave for other environments. Dedicated ROWE workers, on the other hand, tend to be more productive while feeling less pressure.

While Best Buy is by no means immune to the economic climate hurting most businesses right now (they recently offered buyouts to 4,000 employees), they show no signs of abandoning their ROWE efforts. “If anything,” observe Ressler and Thompson, “people need more control over their time in order to meet the growing demands that life in a bad economy puts on people.”

There are plenty of potential barriers in getting ROWE principles adopted, Thompson notes, but most of them have to do with fears about whether or not people will get their work done. And Thompson insists that ROWE environments quickly reveal those who abuse their freedoms — because they simply aren’t delivering on their goals: “If you’re a slacker,” she says, “this model is not for you.”

It’s a great model for Jauman, however. He says ROWE has made him a better manager and a better employee. “It’s shown me that a lot of what we used to do was done simply to fill out the 40-hour week,” he says.

The biggest challenge for him these days is confronting the legacy of the old ways. “Now that people no longer have to fill that 40-hour week at a desk, they start telling you about the things they had to do that were a total waste of time,” he says. “And you suddenly get this tremendous guilt trip that you were a horrible manager, because people weren’t telling you about reality in the pre-ROWE environment.”

Reality — that’s what workplace flexibility is all about. And as more businesses come to recognize that respecting employees’ real needs can deliver real returns, the reality of work may get a whole lot better for everyone involved.

is a St. Paul, Minn.–based writer and editor.

Illustration by Alicia Buelow

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