When Xerox employees tried flextime at their Dallas customer-service center, the results seemed almost too good to be true.
Work got finished quicker, absenteeism dropped 30 percent, customers were better served, and a key project came in under budget, the company said.
How employees scheduled their working hours was left up to them, says Patricia Nazemetz, Xerox's human resources director.
"They were told, 'You've got to do these things. You come back and tell us what's the best way to get this done.' Instead of, 'Everybody must be here from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,' they worked out schedules where some people worked early and some stayed later," she says.
The result was "some people worked 7 to 3 and some started at 10 and left at 7," Ms. Nazemetz says. "We had more coverage for longer hours rather than nobody being there at 5:30 p.m. when a customer might call.
One supervisor found that, for the first time in her 10 years at Xerox, she returned from vacation to find a clean desk: A work team had covered for her.
Flexibility is the one component workers "consistently identified as critical to creating balance between work and family," writes social psychologist Deborah Lee in her new book, "Having It All, Having Enough" (Amacom).
"Currently, workplace flexibility is still more in demand than available," she writes, "but management culture and practice can change, particularly if it is in the employer's self-interest to do so."
The change at the Dallas center is one of a number of such initiatives adopted by Xerox. Tandem Computers, of Cupertino, Calif., and Corning Inc., in Corning, N.Y., took similar steps as part of a "collaborative action research" project sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
Employees also tried telecommuting, a compressed work week, part-time work, and simply hanging "Quiet Time" signs on office doors. Results are detailed in the Ford Foundation report "Relinking Life and Work: Toward a Better Future."
"Managers send negative signals that using family-friendly benefits is a problem for them and the company as a whole," the Foundation's June Zeitlin says, explaining why the initiatives were adopted.
"If you look at who's moving up and who's being rewarded, it is the person who works the longest hours and never takes a day off and is always available for travel, so the benefits may be just on paper," says Ms. Zeitlin.
Prior to the experiment, a woman team leader at one company was punished for adopting a four-day work week to spend more time with her children. Other team members took over her work on her off day and, by all measures, productivity included, "the group was thriving," the report says.
It was not long, though, before the manager was stripped of supervisory duties.