Workplace Culture

Research Backs Benefits of Flex Work for Workers – and Companies

By Ed Frauenheim

May. 29, 2013

It doesn’t always filter into conversations about flexible work in the business world, but there’s a raft of academic research about flexible work arrangements. It generally supports those arrangements for workers and companies—with some intriguing twists such as the 15-hours-per-week telecommuting sweet spot.

The scholarly research on flexibility deserves attention these days, given that alternative work arrangements were curtailed this year at prominent companies Yahoo Inc. and Best Buy Inc. Those moves have triggered scrutiny of workplace flexibility throughout the business world. Some consultants have argued that flexibility programs aren’t always well-designed or effectively put into place, while companies by and large say they remain committed to some flavor of flexibility. But the public conversation around flexibility and work-life balance in recent months has taken place largely without consideration of academic investigations on the subject.

In fact, scholars of work-life balance issues have bemoaned the way their research findings tend to remain cooped up in the “ivory tower” of academia—meaning in academic journals rarely read by business practitioners. “Although work-family research has mushroomed over the past several decades, an implementation gap persists in putting work-family research into practice,” scholars Ellen Ernst Kossek, Boris Baltes and Russell Matthews wrote in a 2011 paper. “Because of this, work-family researchers have not made a significant impact in improving the lives of employees relative to the amount of research that has been conducted.”

That research as a whole speaks in favor of flexibility. A study several years ago by Ravi Gajendran and David Harrison of Pennsylvania State University, for example, concluded that telecommuting reduced work-family conflict and improved job satisfaction and performance. Those findings were echoed in an article earlier this year in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The study, conducted by University of Minnesota researchers Phyllis Moen, Erin Kelly and Jack Lam, examined the impact of an alternative work arrangement known as “Results-Only Work Environment,” or ROWE, on employees’ health. Under ROWE, employees have significant power to set their work schedules and locations.

The study found that ROWE helped employees gain a sense of “time adequacy”—that is, workers’ sense of having enough time for themselves, for being with their families and for participating in their communities. Greater time adequacy, in turn, was associated with higher levels of energy and lower levels of emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.

ROWE was born at Best Buy. A pair of the retail giant’s employees conceived of the approach about a decade ago and first implemented the practice at Best Buy’s Minneapolis-area headquarters before spreading the work philosophy to other organizations. That’s why Best Buy’s decision to kill the program was so striking.

The company’s financial results have slipped in the past year—it posted a loss of $81 million for the quarter ended May 4—and CEO Hubert Joly ended ROWE amid a broader turnaround effort. Joly said the alternative work approach erred by delegating too much authority to employees. “Anyone who has led a team knows that delegation is not always the most effective leadership style,” Joly wrote in an opinion piece in the Minneapolis StarTribune newspaper. A similar story unfolded at Yahoo. Under pressure to rekindle Yahoo’s earlier success, new CEO Marissa Mayer turned heads by reversing work-at-home arrangements at the Internet pioneer. Published reports suggested telecommuting workers at Yahoo were slacking off. And Mayer later argued face-to-face encounters are important for collaboration and innovation.

Academic research supports the idea that flexibility can go awry. An intriguing study in 2005 by scholars Timothy Golden and John Veiga suggested that the ideal number of hours a week to telecommute is 15. Job satisfaction increased as workers approached this figure but began to decrease as workers spent more time each week telecommuting. “The limited interactivity of the electronic media coupled with increased social isolation may take a toll on the benefits of telecommuting,” they wrote.

It also seems that flexibility regarding work hours is more effective than flexibility around workplace when it comes to reducing the stress work can cause on family life. Researchers Kristen Shockley and Tammy Allen found as much in a 2007 paper, noting that telecommuting workers with children at home may experience “role conflict.”

Scholarly research also helps clarify the degree to which flexible work arrangements are offered to workers. A 2011 study by Stephen Sweet, Elyssa Besen and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes suggests that such programs are often hyped by companies, which in practice offer only limited options. Their research found that 78 percent of companies offer reduced workload flexibility to at least 1 percent of employees, but just 16 percent offer reduced workload flexibility to at least 51 percent of employees. “The types of flexibility that workers need most—cutting back on hours or going on leave—are least likely to be within their reach,” Sweet wrote in a blog post last year.

As companies wrestle with flexible work options, they may also want to consider the findings of a recent academic paper on the connection between virtual work and “social loafing”—when individuals on a team slack off. Much depends on the family demands of individual workers and whether they are on teams of similar workers, researchers Sara Jansen Perry, Natalia Lorinkova, Emily Hunter, Abigail Hubbard and J. Timothy McMahon found. For example, if a team is made up entirely of “busy” people with many family responsibilities, their individual performances suffer. It appears those workers may feel committed to their jobs but excuse each other out of sympathy. But teams composed of all “carefree” people with few family obligations generally work hard in virtual teams. And teams with a mix of “busy” and “carefree” individuals generally avoid loafing, perhaps because the “carefree” workers help show the “busy” how to be more efficient and refuse to excuse any slacking.

“Employees who have many family responsibilities may actually work best with dissimilar co-workers (in terms of family responsibilities) when virtuality is high,” the scholars write. “Perhaps this is a function of learning from co-workers’ working styles or maintaining accountabil­ity within the team.”

Ed Frauenheim is associate editorial director of Human Capital Media, the parent organization of Workforce. Comment below or email him at Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.


Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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