Do Flexible Work Schedules Work?

How flexible and traditional employee schedules compare

Posted Mar 29, 2016

Photo by Dreamstime
Source: Photo by Dreamstime

In a recent New York Times article (Dominus, 2016), the issue of flexible work schedules was examined.  In the majority of workplaces, work schedules are often fixed in stone with often very little opportunity for employee-worker input.  Vacation time requests must be posted several  weeks in advance and sick time often must be verified with a doctor’s note.  In addition, daily work schedules are also detailed to the minute that employees are allowed to take breaks or lunch breaks and are also verified by punch clocks. 

In this type of system, lateness has circumscribed consequences and days off that are not requested in advance are often deemed as “unpaid leave.”  In those workplaces where adequate coverage is required to perform particular job tasks or for safety reasons, this type of structured scheduling is necessary and therefore is required by the employer as a condition of employment.  Employees who are conscientious and value the importance of their work or being part of a team usually do not abuse sick or vacation time.  Yet, we all know of instances where even the most conscientious employee experiences burn out, at which point, their productivity begins to suffer. The question raised in the NY Times article was regarding what would happen if workers were allowed to set their own work schedules? Would their work actually get done?  Would there be total workplace chaos?

These questions are exactly what researchers Phyllis Moen, (a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota) and Erin Kelly, (a work and organization professor at MIT) to find out. Citing problems that employees often experience in trying to juggle work demands along with family responsibilities (e.g. child care, elder parent care etc).  Given the problems that often arise when work demands collide with family responsibilities, several companies began instituting work schedules that allowed for flextime (i.e. allowing for varying work start and stop times) and paid family leave (as mandated under the Family and Medical Leave Act), telecommuting, and child care and other dependent care assistance plans.  What Moen and Kelly wanted to explore was what would happen to worker productivity when he or she was given total control of their work schedule.  

There were two studies summarized in the New York Times article, one was conducted at the electronic chain, Best Buy. Interestingly, Best Buy had initiated its own program whereby employees were allowed total control over their work schedules. Moen and Kelly also set up a more controlled research study at an IT company whereby employees were randomly assigned to two groups, one group was given total control over their schedules while the second group served as a control group with the same company work schedule (whereby time off was granted at the supervisor’s discretion).  In addition, managers and supervisors were trained to be supportive of employee’s personal issues. 

The results were rather surprising. Those worker/employees in the experimental group (i.e. those allowed total flexibility in their work schedule) met their work goals and responsibilities as reliably as the control group!  In addition, those with flexible work schedules also rated themselves as being happier,  healthier, were sleeping better and overall experienced less stress.

In an earlier blog, we had written about Fortune magazine’s list of the top places in the U.S. to work.  What’s interesting is that many of these companies have often implemented similar strategies to afford their employees a more flexible work schedule.  Some companies are actually using flexible work scheduling as a recruitment tool.  I recall many years ago, when I was studying for the licensure exam for psychologist, we had to be familiar with basic theories of industrial/organizational psychology.  One of those early theories was referred to Theory X of Management.  This theory posited that workers were essentially lazy, shiftless and would steal time or materials any chance they got. The Theory X manager therefore was responsible for making certain that employees did what they were supposed to do.  The research by Moen and Kelly suggest a different type of manager and management style that takes into account the stressors that workers experience outside the workplace is more effective.  Granted this may not be effective in all work settings however, it certainly appeared to be effective in the workplaces that Moen and Kelly studied.

Moen, P., Kelly, E. L, Fan, W., Lee, S. R., Almeida, D., Kossek, E. E., Buxton, O. M. (2016).

            Does a flexibility/support organizational initiative improve high-tech employee’s

            well-being? Evidence from the work, family, and health network. American Sociological

            Review, 81(1) February, 134-164.

Kelly, E. L., Moen, P., & Tranby, E. (2011). Changing workplaces to reduce work-family

            Conflict: Schedule control in white collar organizations. American Sociological Review,

            76(2), 265-290.

Dr. Cavaiola is also coauthor of Toxic Coworkers:Dealing with Dysfunctional People on the Job