Now, there's even more rigorous research to back up those findings. Researchers behind a new study published Monday on the American Sociological Review's Web site claims to be the first randomized, controlled study comparing similar groups of employees within one company on the benefits of flexible work. The study, which will be published in the journal's June issue, compared IT employees at a Fortune 500 company who were part of a pilot flexibility program with those who weren't offered the new benefit.
By examining employees within the same company, says Erin Kelly, a University of Minnesota sociologist who was one of the paper's co-authors, the researchers could ensure that any benefits of flexible work arrangements weren't the result of the corporate culture or employees' ability to access the program. "We can be sure the changes we're seeing are due to the initiative we studied," she says. "You're trying to rule out all the alternative explanations."
While Kelly and her colleagues have yet to prove whether the workers in the flexibility program were productive or healthier, they did find a definite increase in those employees' positive feelings about their jobs.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control, and it included a sample of nearly 700 workers from the IT department of a large unnamed Fortune 500 corporation. Half the employees were included in the pilot flexibility program, whose training explicitly outlined how they could control where they did their job and when, as long as they met their goals and it worked for their team. Perhaps most important, it was offered to everyone in the test group — not just top performers or those who had the guts to ask.
The other half of employees were left out, managed instead by the existing policies, which included a work-from-home option that different employees could request with varying success. "There are the old rules on paper and the old rules in practice," Kelly says. Particularly talented or assertive employees sometimes would be allowed to use the benefit, and even then some who worked for cautious supervisors couldn't take part. As in most workplaces, "it was all negotiated," Kelly says. "It all comes down to managers’ comfort level and managers’ style."
Employees who were included in the pilot program, however, were much more likely to feel they had control over their schedules, greater support from their supervisors for their personal lives, and enough time to spend with their families. While they don't have numbers proving employees were more productive, in follow-up interviews with participating employees, "we heard a lot about working more effectively and feeling more productive," Kelly says.
Perhaps more important, managers reported feeling less anxious about supporting remote work arrangements. "It took away the stress," Kelly says. "They stopped worrying about what other people thought of them."
The flexibility program used in the study was modeled off one called ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment, which was first developed at Best Buy and has been applied in other organizations, including the federal government's Office of Personnel Management. (Though the researchers are based in Minnesota, Kelly said in an interview the company they studied was not Best Buy.)
So there's no small irony that despite the positive effects she and her colleagues witnessed, such programs have been curtailed — not only at Best Buy and OPM, but at the unnamed company. After Kelly and her colleagues collected data for their study, new leadership decided to pull back from the flexibility programs.
While she won't outright say she's disappointed or frustrated by that result, Kelly doesn't think it's a good thing. "My guess is that it's counterproductive," she says. "This approach encourages high employee engagement, a lot of enthusiasm for doing the work well, and people feeling like they’re respected and trusted." Unfortunately, Kelly adds, "we still have the broader corporate culture that expects long hours in the office, high visibility and the willingness to travel at a moment's notice. We have a mismatch."