The routine of a typical 9-to-5 work schedule is just that. Typical.
Yet both employees and employers are beginning to acknowledge that it can also be inconvenient, monotonous and stifling. While a consistent and predictable pattern does have some benefits, research shows there may be better ways for all involved to use their time.
People with adaptable work environments tend to have healthier habits and may be more productive and efficient when they work. They have time to devote to self-improvement and health as well as to being present for family and friends.
A 2010 review of scientific literature looked at 10 studies related to workers’ control over their hours and health. The review found that people with ability to determine their own schedules had better mental health, healthier blood pressure and better sleep habits than those on fixed or involuntary schedules.
Preferences for when to go to bed, when to wake, when to exercise and even when to eat can vary significantly from person to person. Many people do just fine on an office-hours routine, but others may find themselves waking too early to function or getting too tired to focus by the end of the day. Sleeping well, cooking at home, working out and other aspects of health can get pushed aside by schedules that just don’t mesh.
One 2013 study published in the Social Science and Medicine journal analyzed changes in a workplace adopting a results-only work environment (compared to one based on a specific schedule or hours worked). Research indicated that people in results-based teams showed decreased smoking and drinking and increased sleep and exercise. A previous study released in 2011 found also similar wellness benefits in a results-only work environment.
Other research has looked at more subjective areas effected by schedule flexibility, including people’s happiness and satisfaction. It makes sense that when people can choose to do things like take their kids to school, sleep in or help their spouse, that they'll have better relationships, a better quality of life and more happiness with their employment.
The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at the Boston College cites additional benefits of flexible work environments, which include less stress and burnout as well as improved work-life balance and work-family balance, including less negative spillover from work to home -- and from home to work.
In a large-scale study of European workers, researchers found that flexibility was the single most important factor in job satisfaction. Flexibility also markedly influenced family and social commitment, irritability, fatigue and anxiety. Another interesting point was that those with flexibility were more likely to feel that they could continue doing the same job at 60 years old.
The convergence of people being both healthier and happier means a company’s workforce is probably more efficient and feels more loyal to their employers.
A 2014 report produced by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors says businesses benefit by enhancing recruitment, improving worker performance, reducing turnover, increasing job satisfaction and reducing costs related to turnover, healthcare, absenteeism and presenteeism.
But are flexible schedules practical?
Some jobs simply cannot be done off-site, but the majority of workplaces could at least offer a degree of flexibility in hours or arrangements, and many currently do.
A large-scale survey of U.S. companies published in 2014 estimates that about 45 percent of businesses with more than 50 employees offer some form of flexibility to most or all employees. In this study, flexibility included the ability to move when and where they work, reduce workload or pause work. Certain fields like professional, technical and science services; health care; and accommodation and food services offered greater flexibility while industries like construction, finance and manufacturing offered less.
Potential barriers to address on the business side include concerns about equal treatment among employees, concerns about impact on client relationships, potential costs and concerns about potential abuse of policies. The Sloan Center’s Focus on Workplace Flexibility website is a helpful resource to begin researching and developing a plan.
Determining which types of flexibility are appropriate for the workplace is also important. Leadership needs to look at the company’s needs. Questions to ask include: Is it necessary that every worker be present during a certain time period or certain days? Would it be possible to do this job off-site some days using tools like chat and conferencing? Can earlier starting hours or later closing hours work here? Can teams cover for one member’s temporary absence? What types of flexibility would attract the right talent?
Telecommuting remains one of the more controversial aspects of flexibility. Some companies are reluctant to allow employees to work from home due to potential for reduced productivity and lack of supervision, but research may show the opposite.
One recent case study conducted at a Chinese travel agency found that employees working from home increased performance by 13 percent while also increasing work satisfaction. Pennsylvania State University research also improved productivity and performance among telecommuters. Since communication and face-to-face meetings remain important for many companies and workflows, flexible employers often allow partial telecommuting or have certain days where physical attendance is required.
The most significant challenges to implementing flexibility or to utilizing existing flexibility options are actually workplace culture and management. Work environments that place a premium on facetime and a first-in, last-out environment may make employees reluctant to ask for flexibility. Managers who perceive it as drawback, who aren’t aware of the policies or who don’t feel equipped to manage flexible teams may also be uncomfortable with the idea.
For businesses owners, the first step to offering flexible schedules should be training management, human resources and staff about options and processes as well as benefits. The National Workplace Flexibility Study released in 2014 involved training managers at three different workplaces on flexibility, skills and support. More than half of involved managers reported improvements in team communication and interaction, and 98 percent reported no negative impacts of flexibility in the workplace.
The great thing about flexibility is that there are many ways to adapt it to meet the needs of both the company and the workforce. Key aspects of good leadership involve listening to your employees and enacting change when needed. See what types of scheduling conflicts are most common in your environment to get an idea of where to focus efforts. Instituting flexibility on a trial basis or starting with one department could be helpful for identifying the right balance and which policies to establish.