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Employer Flexibility Aids Workers - and the Firm

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 1997



BOSTON

As a marketing support manager for Xerox, Jill Allen assumed that the firm's family-oriented policies served employees well. Yet when researchers from the Ford Foundation looked closely at those policies, their findings surprised Ms. Allen and other managers.

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"The use of flexible work systems was not really meeting people's personal needs or the needs of the business," says Allen, who works in Lewisville, Texas. "We weren't always able to address things people wanted without a lot of red tape."

After considerable research, Xerox managers found ways to cut that red tape. By giving employees more power within their work groups to set their own hours, plan vacation schedules, and take care of personal needs, Allen says, "We eliminated the need for a manager to have to be involved in those decisions." Managers also expanded flexible work schedules to include all employees, not just those with caregiving responsibilities.

Results were impressive. Absenteeism dropped 30 percent at the customer administration center where Allen works. Two other Xerox offices also reported higher revenues, greater productivity, and increased customer satisfaction.

The positive effects of empowering employees lie at the heart of a six-year Ford Foundation study of three companies - Xerox, Corning, and Tandem Computers. Called "Relinking Life and Work: Toward a Better Future," it shows that restructuring work to help employees' personal lives can yield significant bottom-line results.

Workers with a sense of control over their lives, the report finds, are more efficient, productive, and satisfied.

"The Ford Foundation study confirms, for the first time, that disregarding people's lives outside of work causes people to live fragmented lives, and organizations to get half-people," says Peter Senge, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Organizational Learning in Cambridge.

To make lives better and work more effective, some companies are creating self-managed work teams like Allen's. By moving away from a hierarchical "top-down" structure to a "flatter" organization, they are giving people at lower levels more power. At Xerox, researchers also devised mutually agreed upon "quiet times" when interruptions were banned.

Instead of the original "work-family" title to describe flexible schedules, some firms now use the term "work-life."

"It's not just for people with little kids and elderly relatives," says Dana Friedman, senior vice president of Corporate Family Solutions in Nashville, Tenn. "It's for everyone, and how they can be motivated to do the best job for the company. Whether they want to go to graduate school or fulfill their lifelong dream to climb the Himalayas, if that's what the person needs to do to come to work and be refreshed and motivated and do the best job for the company, why is that less important than other things?"

Researchers also challenge a corporate culture that rewards long hours. Too often, according to Lotte Bailyn, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, "The 'good' worker is the person who is seen as putting work above all else."

Dr. Bailyn adds, "What you find, when you look into it, is that people accept this and spend 12 hours a day working. But there's a lot of this 12 hours that's not being very effective."

Allen agrees. "We're saying, it's not about the hours on the clock, it's about the output and the quality of your output. Now people feel they have more time with their families, or to do things they want to do."

Over a long period, she adds, everybody needs some kind of concession. "People feel that obligation to one another. They think, 'When my turn is coming around, I don't expect a no, I expect a yes.'"

No one pretends that such change is easy. "It's not something you do and then it's done," says Bailyn. "It's a way of thinking about work, a way of designing work and the cultures and expectations surrounding work. That's a continuous process."

The study is inspiring similar research in other corporations, among them Ford Motor Company, Merck, and The Body Shop.

"We've found that when people believe they can manage a difficult situation in their personal lives, and can manage that with their employer, they are much more relieved to come to work," Allen says. "We've won a lot of people over by that idea. They say, 'If I have a problem, I know it can be addressed.'"