Every company wants its workers to be as productive as possible.

Executives and managers go to great lengths to implement procedures and policies that are supposed to guarantee employees will work hard, efficiently, and effectively. Then they watch and wait, hoping the benefits of this high productivity will boost their company’s bottom line.

Meanwhile, they may be overlooking one proven route to happier, healthier, more productive workers: flexibility.

The work flex movement has always claimed that people who have some control over their schedules are more productive, but until the last few years, those arguments were mostly supported by anecdotal evidence. But with many studies now in the books, it’s clear that work flex really does improve productivity.

Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor, worked with a team of researchers in 2010-11 to conduct a randomized experiment on working from home. The study ran for 10 months in a 16,000-employee Chinese firm called CTrip.com. It compared the productivity of call-center employees who worked from home with those who labored in cubicles in an office.

The results were striking. Home working led to a 13 percent increase in productivity, and people who telecommuted reported higher work satisfaction.

A Stanford article about the study offered more specifics. “An analysis showed (home workers) answered more calls and worked more hours because they took shorter breaks and used less sick leave,” the Stanford article said. “The home workers also reported being happier than the office workers, and fewer of them quit.”

A Forbes article echoes these findings, saying companies benefit by responding to individuals’ “work styles.”

“Typically, we think of productivity and efficiency in terms of creating work structures and routines that boost output and reduce error,” the Forbes piece said. “This approach is fine—as far as it goes. But individual productivity should also be factored in.

“Research… shows that employees are healthier, experience less stress, and are more productive and engaged when they effectively make choices about how, where and when they work.”

This can mean different things for different workers. Some may want to telecommute one or more days each week. Others may prefer to shift their work hours earlier or later to avoid traffic and a nasty commute. Still others may seek part-time work.

The type of flexibility doesn’t seem to matter as much as the fact that people are given some control over their work lives.

That fact was evident in the results of another study, conducted over the course of 12 months in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company. I’ve previously written about this study, in which half of the employees in the division participated in a pilot program that helped them learn about work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives.

“These practices focused on results, rather than face time at the office,” a press release about the study said. “Employees then implemented these practices, which ranged from shifting their work schedules and working from home more to rethinking the number of daily meetings they attended, increasing their communication via instant messenger, and doing a better job of anticipating periods of high demand, such as around software releases.

“Managers in the pilot group also received supervisor training to encourage their support for the family/personal life and professional development of their reports.”

A control group in the same division didn’t receive any training and followed the company’s previous policies.

Again, the results were crystal clear. The workers who took part in the test said they felt more control over their schedules and support from their bosses. They were more likely to say they had enough time with their families, and they reported higher job satisfaction and less stress.

While the study’s authors did not find a direct correlation between this sense of control and productivity in this particular case, other research has established that such links are likely to exist. Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, said in a 1MFWF interview, “We have decades of studies showing that people are happier, healthier, and more productive when they feel autonomous.” He added, “It’s because autonomy is a basic psychological need. The more autonomous we feel, the more likely we are to be engaged.”

Plenty of other firms have found the same productivity benefits from offering flex work. According to statistics compiled by Global Workplace Analytics, AT&T found its telecommuters worked five more hours at home than its office workers. JD Edwards teleworkers were shown to be 20-25 percent more productive than their office colleagues. And American Express employees who worked from home were 43 percent more productive than workers in the office.

So, instead of looking for the secret to better productivity in the latest best-selling book on management, perhaps companies should consider a different business case. A well-designed, formal flex policy, supported by trained managers and implemented with motivated workers, may be one of the best productivity-enhancing tools around.

Has offering flexibility led to significant productivity gains for your business? Which kinds of flex work seem to have the greatest benefit? Share your ideas in the comments section.

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