In recent years, employers have made great strides to introduce flexible hours and telecommuting options that respond to the needs of working women juggling their job and home responsibilities.
It turns out men may need that same balance.
Recent surveys have confirmed what we already know to be true: Everything related to work is changing at an accelerating pace — the workers, the workplace and work itself.
Let’s start with the workers, since they are at the front lines of all this change. They are increasingly more diverse, especially the youngest of them entering the workplace. They have also become noticeably less healthy over the last five years, according to the Families and Work Institute’s National Study of the Changing Workforce. The health of working men is declining even faster than that of women, in part because, for the first time, they report more work-life conflict than women.
Understandably, the need to maintain productivity and profitability in the midst of escalating stress levels and the deteriorating health of the American workforce is keeping many business owners awake at night.
The workplace is also in a state of flux. On the one hand, workplace design has reached new levels of sophistication, providing more options and more individual control by featuring co-working spaces, huddle rooms, hoteling, mobile (plug-and-play) connections. But today fewer people commute on a daily basis to a physical workplace.
Aided by technology, shrinking budgets, the popularity of telework and a radical shift in the tasks that people actually perform, work is no longer primarily defined as a place you go but something you do.
Since we have done just about all we can to the worker and the workplace, let’s turn our attention to work itself.
The way work is done in many organizations isn’t serving us very well in the global, highly technological, fast-changing conditions of the 21st century. Many policies, systems and practices look in the rear view mirror, rooted in antiquated attitudes about the nature of people (are they costs or assets; lazy or self-organizing?) and the nature of work (is it designed to be drudgery or endlessly fascinating?)
Given this triple context, what, specifically, can companies do to increase productivity and its sidekick, profit?
They can increase current levels of job autonomy.
All of us like having choices and feel more comfortable when we have a sense of control over what’s happening to us. At work this is called “job autonomy” and it is the core task of leaders to optimize this comfort level for every contributor.
Why? Research shows that workers who do achieve optimal levels of job autonomy work with significantly more focus than others and are therefore more productive. Autonomy is a fundamental component of drive and drive is what delivers measurable results.
So, make sure everyone who manages people is providing adequate levels of individual control over how, when and where work gets done. A universal power tool for doing this is the implementation of workplace flexibility, which includes a host of work scheduling options and usually some aspects of creating more flexible careers (providing for people to enter and temporarily exit the workforce throughout the career life cycle, either at the request of the employer during economic downturns or at the request of the employee in response to predictable life events).
Flexibility is a management philosophy, so it has no direct costs. Small businesses can change their flexibility quotient much faster than large ones because of the clear line of sight across the entire organization. And the best news is that workplace flexibility toolkits abound, the techniques are well-tested and, when properly implemented, lead to increases in productivity and employee engagement.
Kathleen “Kathie” M. Lingle is a work-life certified professional who serves as executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress at WorldatWork, a Washington-based professional membership organization for human resources directors.