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If you've ever looked around the office and wondered if your company could embrace a more flexible work culture, a new randomized control trial may offer hope.

Sociological researchers out of the University of Minnesota found they were about to set up a successful flexible initiative within a department of a large Fortune 500 company. And after six months, employees assigned to the flexible model reported huge benefits.

"Employees said they had more time with their families, more control over where and when they worked, they felt more supported by their managers – all together this means they felt it was easier to manage their work and personal lives," one of the researchers, Erin Kelly, a sociology professor, said in an interview.

For the study, published online Monday by the American Sociological Review, a research team worked with 700 salaried employees of an IT department of the corporation, working an average of 46 hours a week. Half of the group worked within the status quo and the other half were part of a flexible work program. The program involved training for groups of employees and supervisors on new work practices involving an increase of employee control over work time and a focus on "key results," according to the paper.

Supervisors had additional training on how to support their staff and the negative impacts of work-family conflict on business outcomes, such as employee turnover and morale, along with "self-monitoring tasks" designed to help managers reflect on their own behaviour.

Some of the ideas encouraged or facilitated in training sessions by the researchers:

  • The expectation that everyone work 9-to-5 in the office does not reflect current technologies, employees’ preferences given their personal obligations.
  • Employees seeking more flexibility are not less committed or productive. Instead, they would be more engaged in their work, more responsive to co-worker and customer needs.
  • Setting up conference call lines for meetings, clarifying tasks so “face time” is not used to evaluate productivity or commitment.

The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is believed to be the first randomized control trial of its kind. Dr. Kelly says being able to compare employees inside the the same organization was valuable in clarifying the effects of the program.

"It's not about where and when we work, but how can we work more efficiently and sanely. What can we do together to get the work done and meet our needs in our personal lives as well," she says.

The sociologists had been concerned that the employees might work extended hours. Dr. Kelly says that previous research has found a "Mother, May I" model happens when flexible work arrangements are available to only a few high-performing people in a company; those who get it feel so grateful and so pleased they end up working even more.

"We were pleased to see no change either way in hours worked," she says, adding that they also saw no evidence of slacking off. Parents with kids under 18 at home worked an average of one hour less per week, something the researchers considered negligible because of the increased intensity and efficiency of work.

"The stories we heard were about improved efficiency, improved productivity, as well as a sense of relief at not feeling guilty if you are working slightly different hours that your peers."

But considering a culture change can be difficult, especially with high-profile companies like Yahoo and BestBuy recently reversing their telecommuting and flexible scheduling policies.

"When you have new leadership and especially when those people are charged with turning the company around, they have to look for some dramatic change," says Dr. Kelly. "I can't speak to the specifics of those cases, but looking like you're getting tough with employees and pushing full steam ahead is something that is appreciated by the stock market and sends a signal about being serious about a turnaround. It's not a surprise to me that new leadership can mean that these initiatives are at risk."

Dr. Kelly says requiring further study are the effects of flexible work on turnover rates, the return on investment for companies, sleep and cardiovascular measures and whether a workplace shift can be rolled out in shift-based workplaces such as nursing homes.

Oh, and there's another study under way at the same company the current one was conducted: The effects of the program being killed under new leadership.

"We're in the midst of collecting follow-up data after that decision was made. Eventually, we'll have before, during and after data."

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