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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Focus on flexibility

July 1, 2011

Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly.

A study headed by Phyllis Moen (left) and Erin Kelly showed the benefits that resulted when employees could pick when and where they worked.

The benefits of giving employees true power over when and where they work

By Deane Morrison

Today's stressed-out employees get plenty of advice: Take yoga, eat better, walk briskly over the lunch hour.

Good ideas, except they all put the onus on the employee, as if work stress were an issue for employees to solve on their own.

Instead, stress is a work issue that responds to changes in the structure and philosophy of work and time, a new University of Minnesota study shows. Specifically, when employees can work when and where they want, with the only requirement being that the job be done (and done well), they report less conflict between their jobs and their personal lives.

And to answer the first question that pops to mind: It doesn't just help women with children at home.

The whole story

The study is published in the journals American Sociological Review, Vol. 76, Issue 2, pp. 265-290, and Social Problems, Vol. 58, Issue 1, pp. 69-98.

"We thought it would reduce the 'opting out' of the work force for young mothers, but it lowered the turnover of all four groups—male and female, with children and without," says Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology who led the study with associate professor Erin Kelly.

What sets the study apart from previous ones is that the researchers measured the effects of flexibility on people before and after they gained the freedom to control their work schedules.

"Previous studies showed that those with more flexibility in scheduling work reported less stress in managing multiple responsibilities," Kelly says. 

But those who have flexibility are more likely to be higher-ranking employees, who can often afford to have a spouse at home, hire better child care, or take other measures to reduce stress, Moen and Kelly say. No one had observed employees before and after they were given flexibility and shown that it made a difference.

A natural experiment

In 2005 Minnesota-based Best Buy introduced ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) for some white-collar employees at its headquarters. The ROWE employees could choose their work hours and places, as long as they achieved the desired results.

In 2006-07 Moen and Kelly surveyed a total of 608 employees, half of whom were given a ROWE environment and half who continued under standard work hours and locations. Their surveys captured the transition to ROWE and how people in both groups felt about their jobs before and after the change.

Among the significant findings of the research:

• People in ROWE were 45 percent less likely to leave the company in the period of the survey. Their turnover was 6 percent, compared to 11 percent for the comparison group.

• 46 percent of the ROWE group reported less work-personal conflict, compared to 31 percent of the comparison group.

• The ROWE group didn't increase the time they spent working compared to the comparison group.

• An increased commitment to Best Buy was reported by 19.6 percent of the ROWE group, 11.5 percent of the comparison group.

A new day for workers

The new freedom was a godsend to ROWE employees who commuted, some of whom claimed to have cut their commute time by 75 percent by avoiding rush hours. ROWE also let work teams shed tasks.

"Teams strove to get rid of low-value work, like meetings with no real agenda," says Moen. "For example, sometimes they would send only one or a few people, instead of everybody, to meetings."

A work environment that meets the needs of employees is a growing concern because most workers are expected to do more with less these days, the researchers say. Also, they cite a 2009 study in which 70 percent of U.S. men and women reported some interference between work and nonwork responsibilities.

But what about introducing schedule control to low-wage, service, and production workers? This is possible, the researchers say, and they warn against restricting initiatives like ROWE to the better-paid.

"If access to schedule control increases among white-collar workers but not the less privileged, this would be yet another way work is stratified and stress—with all its consequences for health and family life—is distributed unequally by class," they state.


Tags: College of Liberal Arts

Related Links

Department of Sociology

College of Liberal Arts

Phyllis Moen's Web page

Erin Kelly's Web page

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