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If 9-to-5 is Old News, Can Flexibility Work for Employers and Employees?

Flexible schedules. Improved work-life balance. Responsibilities that encroach on the myth of the old 9-to-5 job. We’ve heard the claims. But is this really what employees want? Is it good for business? Perhaps more significantly, when companies put “balance” processes in place, do they work?

Phyllis Moen, a professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Erin L. Kelly, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management – conducting what they say is the first randomized controlled trial measuring the effects of workplace flexibility in a U.S. firm – spent a year researching how employees at the IT division of a Fortune 500 company used the company’s flexible work option. About half of the employees worked standard workweeks; the other half utilized the company’s STAR program – “support, transform, achieve, results” – which gives employees a say in when, where and how they do their work.

The results, the authors say, were definitive.

Bloomberg reports: “The workers who participated in STAR didn’t work fewer hours, as some might expect, merely different ones. The quality of work didn’t decrease, either. That’s not necessarily surprising, since most people don’t spend all nine hours of a workday working, and many studies have established the benefits of breaks.”

The researchers also found that employee’s gained something more intangible: They were happier. Bloomberg: “The people who participated in STAR reported improved overall well-being. The researchers attribute the results to having a “sense of control,” rather than to any single difference in what they did, said Phyllis Moen, one of the researchers and a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. “They did not have to ask permission,” she said. Being treated as adults who know how and when to get work done, it turns out, makes people feel better about their jobs.”

So will such a process work everywhere? The Bloomberg piece underscores how big a cultural change this represents for most firms:

“The study proved that an organization can change, but the researchers said that such a radical transformation of the workday will be met with resistance by many. There are always certain jobs that people insist can’t be molded to a new way of working. Deeply ingrained cultural associations with work and at-desk hours will be hard to overcome.”

But if the effects are so positive in the study, why is implementation so hard? Bloomberg: “The present-day work schedule is ‘organized for a workforce of the mid-1950s when white-collar and blue-collar men had homemaking wives. It’s just not possible to do it all without burning out or getting sick,’ Kelly said. ‘What we tried to do is figure out how can we make the quality of work environment better.’”

So how do employers start down this road? Embrace a “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) says Cali Ressler, co-author of “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.

Mashable reports that Ressler says companies need to hold employees accountable for results not face time: “Working within a ROWE means you are clear about your goals and measures, and you’re using common sense to approach them in ways that will be most productive and efficient for the customer. Retail and hospitality employees, just like employees in any other industry, must be focused on their customers’ or guests’ needs and satisfy them in order to keep receiving a paycheck. Restaurants, hotels, corporate offices, hospitals, schools, zoos — any entity that employs people — needs to ensure they are paying those employees for results not simply for putting in time.”

Ressler adds that transitioning to a results oriented environment can be challenging but very rewarding, Mashable: “Managers are accustomed to managing people and how they do work instead of managing the actual work and whether it’s getting done. Managers do need some extra coaching to ensure they don’t slip back into the behaviors of prescribing how, when, and where things to happen – and instead, have objective performance conversations about agreed-upon goals and measures. This frees them up to be more strategic –- because they are no longer playing the role of babysitter. Refreshing!”

But as Fortune points out, employees in flexible working environments must also be ready to change too: “Flexible work is about more than the employer making concessions. Workers must also be flexible and committed to meeting the needs of the business, regardless of when a work emergency arises.”