Summary:

As scientists examine the flexible future of work, more and more studies are confirming that letting employees set where and when they work promotes health and happiness, including the latest analysis of Best Buy’s ROWE experiment out of the University of Minnesota.

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The flexible future of work, which trades in the office-based nine-to-five for increased flexibility in where, when and how work gets done, might seem far off to those trapped in cubicle-obsessed, clock-watching, traditional organizations. But as the idea gains traction, it’s also gaining scientific support, with more and more studies proving the value of flexibility. Hopefully, this mainstream validation will eventually sway even the most old-school managers.

As we’ve previously reported, a rigorous study out of Stanford recently supported claims that remote work increases productivity. Now another study led by University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen is doing the same for results-only work environments (known as ROWE) with a careful examination of Best Buy’s experiment in flexibility.

The results appear in this month’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior and are also highlighted in The Atlantic’s “Study of the Day” section. To obtain them, Moen and her colleagues compared the well-being and health-promoting behavior of 659 employees at Best Buy’s headquarters before and after ROWE was implemented there in 2006. Half of the employees participated in the program; half did not. What were the results? The researchers summed it up succinctly:

Participating in the ROWE initiative directly increases employees’ health-related behaviors of sleep and exercise, as well as the likelihood that employees will not go to the workplace when sick and will see a doctor when sick.

Those with flexibility got a half hour more sleep every night, experienced less work-family conflict and were at lower risk for some of the greatest hits of poor health: “unhealthy eating habits, obesity, elevated cholesterol levels, and hypertension.”

The takeaway for managers is simple and was neatly summed up by Moen in the news release announcing the findings: “Emphasizing actual results can create a work environment that fosters healthy behavior and well-being.” You can download the complete study by clicking here.

The results seem to clearly indicate that, compared to a traditionally structured corporate job, ROWE promotes health and happiness (and probably, by extension, productivity). But it should also be noted that farther down the scale of independence and flexibility, when work is entirely remote and professionals are fully responsible for their own schedules, there is also some evidence that freedom can increase stress and sleeplessness for a significant minority of workers. Care needs to be taken as flexibility increases, so workers get the support they need to feel in control of the demands on their schedules, according to another recent analysis from an academic at the University of Sheffield.

Do rigid schedules contribute to ill health in your experience?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

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