U research promotes alt. workplace

A University study showed schedule flexibility improves retention.

by Allison Kronberg

A typical workplace requires employees to work at a set time and place, but University of Minnesota research found that practice isn’t ideal for health.

Sociology professor Phyllis Moen and associate professor Erin Kelly led the study, which surveyed Best Buy employees before and after the company implemented a new training method focused on increasing work flexibility.

The results of their study showed that increased schedule flexibility allowed employees to better balance work and family, keeping them from leaving the workforce for family reasons. Overall, the system reduced turnover by almost half.

Best Buy started the training process, called Results-Only Work Environment, at its Richfield, Minn., headquarters in 2005.

Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler developed the system while working for Best Buy. Moen and Kelly came to the company and asked permission to use the training method for their research, Thompson said.

Ressler and Thompson have since left Best Buy to start their own company.

Best Buy stopped using the initiative in spring 2013. The company declined to comment on the issue.

The system aims to move away from a set work place and time, to reduce the amount of permission workers need to change their schedules and to increase productivity and commitment.

For ROWE training, employees participate in four one-hour modules that teach them how to find people’s strengths and focus on the results of their actions at work. Each person is completely autonomous and accountable, Thompson said.

Moen and Kelly presented the study findings at the Redesigning, Redefining Work Research Project and Summit at Stanford University earlier this month.

Researchers talked with employees and observed their transition to ROWE for qualitative data. The research used an employee survey for quantitative data, Hill said.

“The measure we used looked at spillover from [the] job to the family life,” Moen said.

Individuals reported how much time they spent with their families and how satisfying that time was — as well as any conflicts they had balancing work and family.

“It was really about being able to choose how I spent my time and not feeling guilty or stressed- out or resentful,” Thompson said of her time as an employee with Best Buy during ROWE. “I was able to make the right choices at any given time. That made the time I did spend with my family better time.”

The study showed that more control led to less stress. Employees reported improved sleep cycles, more energy, increased exercise and less smoking.

Focusing on results instead of everyday tasks, Moen said, allows employees to feel like they have more control over their jobs. And the method led employees to feel better about their time spent at home, Thompson said.

“You really can’t make more time, but if you can change the way that parents feel about the time they spend with their children, then that is a positive outcome,” said Rachelle Hill, a former University sociology graduate student who worked with Moen and Kelly on the research.

The old-fashioned way of organizing a workplace with a set work schedule for all employees  doesn’t fit the reality of people’s lives today, Kelly said.

“Some people love to go to work certain hours and be at a desk and then leave at the end of the day. That’s fine for them,” Moen said. “The issue is, do you have the choice to do that or not?”

The University workplace

Once when there was construction outside Kelly’s office, she got an email telling her to ask for her supervisor’s permission if she wanted to work in a quieter place.

“People think that they are being supportive,” she said, “but they are still requiring employees to ask permission for things that should be common sense.”

Kelly said the University follows the system’s basic tenets “pretty well.”

University faculty members have a lot of control over their schedules, she said. They can decide when to be in lab, when to meet with their research teams or teaching assistants and when to hold office hours.

Moen said the University’s Office of Human Resources exemplifies flexible thinking.

The office is starting a renovation that could replace standard office spaces with broader workspaces. OHR senior communications consultant Nora Hayes said the office is in the initial phases of renovation.

But some of the University’s regulations are old-fashioned, Kelly said, and administrators should recognize and discuss them.

There may be even more examples of flexible thinking at the University that aren’t being advertised, she said.

“Some groups that are doing this really well may keep that under the radar because it doesn’t agree with official rules,” she said.

Many young people already have the right mindset about the workplace, Moen said.

“They’re going to carve out their own path and negotiate their own situations with employers,” she said. “Maybe not on the first day, but as they gain respect, expertise and skills that make them valuable, so that they can have the flexibility to work to live rather than live to work.”