Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She studies occupational careers, gender, families, and well-being over the life course, including the frequently obsolete social, cultural, and policy ecologies in which lives play out.
Erin L. Kelly is a Professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her research investigates the adoption, implementation, and consequences of work-family and anti-discrimination policies in U.S. workplaces.
Earlier this year, Phyllis and Erin, along with their team at the Work, Family & Health Network, published a study based on a very unusual, randomized controlled experiment in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company with 700 employees: “Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees’ Well-Being?“. They found that workers who participated in a program that emphasized flexibility and support reported higher levels of job satisfaction, reduced burnout, and reduced psychological stress than those who did not participate.
1MFWF: Your study was conducted over the course of 12 months. Did it take a full year for the changes you implemented to have an effect?
Erin and Phyllis: The initiative we studied changed employees’ minds and the way they worked right away. In fact, from our observations of the training workshops (where employees and managers talked about what it would mean to have full control over when, where, and how they did their work and what it would feel like to know your boss and co-workers support your personal life, as well as your work efforts), it was clear that these workers were eager for these changes.
The article we published earlier this year followed employees in the new program and a comparison group of employees for 12 months, but our research observations on the ground point to immediate changes. It was important to capture at least a year, though, since sometimes new initiatives roll out but then are quickly forgotten.
1MFWF: You focused on employees within an IT division. Was there a specific reason you chose to focus on IT workers? Would you expect to see the same trends regardless of the industry?
Erin and Phyllis: We chose this company as our research partner because they were open to a true experiment, with careful and rigorous evaluation comparing a “treatment” group to a “control” group. IT employees are similar to many other professional, technical, and managerial workers today, but perhaps on the cutting edge too. IT employees’ work is often already coordinated across time zones and continents, so it seems feasible to have employees working at home, if they choose, and setting their own schedules to some extent. That’s the promise–that we can use new technologies and systems to coordinate knowledge work across time and space. But IT employees are on the cutting edge of the challenges of globalized work processes too; their hours often stretch so they can do calls with offshore workers, and they know that many IT jobs are moving offshore. In short, the IT workforce we studied seems to give us a good picture of how more and more professional, technical, and managerial workers will fare in the near future.
1MFWF: The practices you included in your study included schedule flexibility, working from home, rethinking meeting attendance, and increasing communication via tools like instant messenger. Do companies need to adopt all the different policies you implemented in order to see positive results?
Erin and Phyllis: The key to the initiative we studied is that employees, working in their teams and with their managers, looked at the way they did their work and knew they could make changes that were sensible for them. The work has to get done, and so shifting your schedule or working from home may or may not be a good idea for someone in a particular role. But employees are asked to evaluate that and to do so knowing that their co-workers and managers are ready to support them on and off the job. From our perspective, what is most important is that these deliberations and decisions are happening in a team context, where employees and managers look at the way they are working and are open to changing that. The specific changes that are implemented matter less than the process, where people have the chance to pursue the dual goals of working smarter and paying attention to their personal and family lives, to their health and wellbeing.
1MFWF: In addition to increases in satisfaction and wellness, did you track any gains in productivity or efficiency?
Erin and Phyllis: The Work, Family, and Health Network research team tried to look at productivity and efficiency as well. We found no changes in employees’ work hours, which suggests that productivity did not increase or decrease dramatically under the new program. The employees benefited and the company also benefited because fewer employees chose to leave the firm in the work groups that went through this program. That’s the subject of another article that will be published soon.
1MFWF: When the company involved in the study learned about your results, did they embrace flexible policies company-wide? If not, why not?
Erin and Phyllis: The program we studied was up and running successfully in this division for a couple years. But this new way of working did not survive a merger that brought in new leadership and shifted executives’ focus to new concerns. After the merger was finalized, management decided to stick with the acquiring firm’s much more traditional, less flexible policies. That’s the reality of doing experiments in the real world. Our study is important because we are able to demonstrate the effects of these workplace changes for employees (and for the firm); these findings are scientifically strong. But it is also important to realize that the decision-makers inside firms are coming from a variety of perspectives and focused on different problems and audiences, so strong scientific evidence may or may not win out.
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