Schedule flexibility should not be perceived as a gift to employees, suggests a new study. If it were, the employer would be giving up something, presumably employee productivity.
But an increasing body of research indicates that flexible workplaces are no worse for wear than others with stricter schedules.
The most recent study, published this month by Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, analyzed the effect that flexible work policies have on IT workers at a major firm.
Half of the 867 workers continued working under the company’s existing policy, with standard schedules and exceptions occasionally granted by supervisors.
The other group was given an entirely open-ended schedule, with no restrictions, so long as the employees completed their assigned work. Supervisors were also encouraged to think about ways to reduce work-family conflicts for employees, and were even prompted twice a day reminding them to come up with such ideas.
The study found that those who were granted the additional flexibility were not any less productive than those who labored under the traditional schedule. Those with the flexible schedules also reported being much happier because of the reduced stress of trying to make time to pick up kids and other typical work-family conflicts.
The study prompted a major feature story in the New York Times Magazine, “Rethinking the Work-Life Equation,” which profiled the growing ranks of experts in favor of flexible scheduling. Employers are under increased pressure to help their workers strike a work-life balance because of shifting gender roles, as more and more married couples commit themselves to both career advancement and child-rearing.
Even employers that are generous to employees seeking schedule flexibility may not produce the same level of stress-reduction as a policy that explicitly grants unlimited flexibility.
‘‘What people told us, over and over again, was that the new policy removed the guilt,’’ Erin Kelly, an MIT professor who collaborated on the study, told the New York Times Magazine. ‘‘We heard that word a lot.’’