Flexible work schedules have been around a long time, but the idea of allowing people to work fewer hours in traditional full-time positions at reduced pay and benefits has been met with resistance at many companies. Yet, says Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D., of Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, reduced loads may be the next step in arranging customized work schedules for top-performing employees.
Kossek, and colleague Mary Dean Lee of McGill University in Montreal, followed up with American and Canadian firms that had been experimenting with reducing workloads for at least six years. Their study included such big corporate names as IBM, Starbucks, Deloitte & Touche, and General Mills. They talked to employees, managers, and executives to get their thoughts on how the arrangements were working.
Kossek says the study showed that reduced-load work arrangements can reap several key benefits for the organization, including greater productivity, less turnover, cost savings, and co-worker development. "Some of these benefits are counter-intuitive, but nevertheless they are real," Kossek acknowledges.
Companies are willing to support reduced workloads for their professional employees primarily because the practice is a good way to retain top performers. Employees working fewer hours were less stressed, able to manage family commitments, and felt they performed their job better. They also exhibited a greater loyalty to the organization.
And there can be hidden benefits. Kossek says an attorney on reduced workload used the time to think about his job. He came up with an idea that resulted in huge savings for the firm, something that might not have happened if he had been working full-time.
Working fewer hours and having less responsibility has been seen as a career killer for managers and professional employees. The mantra has always been work more hours and harder to get ahead. The reality, says Kossek, is that people working on reduced loads have not fallen off the promotional track. She says reduced-load work is just another tool that managers should consider. But, the results are better when the arrangements serve both the organization and the worker, she says. "They should not be done just to accommodate an employee. There has to be a benefit for the organization."
For positions that can be redesigned to accommodate alternative arrangements, new ways of working should be made widely available. "Every individual and manager should be given the opportunity to discuss whether reduced-load work can be adapted to a particular job situation, in order not to foster resentment or harm morale," says Kossek. The big picture, according to Kossek, is not the work schedule of an individual employee, but how managers and executives see the changing nature of the workplace and different ways of working.
"Reduced-load work is only one way of meeting the challenges facing corporations as they battle to develop a productive workforce and retain top employees—exactly the people employers need to keep," Kossek says. The bottom line is that working with employees to develop customized work schedules pays off for the organization. "It is not smart for companies to hire talented people, then overload them with work and have them leave."