Workplace flexibility is on the minds of both employers and employees these days. In the past, flexibility was an afterthought at best in most HR departments.  But today, corporations are embracing flexibility policies that accommodate the needs of employees who say their loyalty to a firm often depends on whether a policy is in place.In fact, 75 percent of companies now have some kind of flexible workplace policy, according to a study conducted by telecommunications giant Vodafone. The survey polled 8,000 global employers and their employees, small and medium-sized businesses, public sector organizations and multinational corporations in 10 countries.

All the respondent corporations allowed employees to work from home or vary their hours and described themselves as very pleased with the results of their flexibility initiatives. Sixty-one percent of employers said profits increased, 83 percent said they had seen improvements in productivity and 57 percent said that adopting flexible working policies had been good for their reputation in the marketplace.

Access to high-speed data services, cloud computing, improved broadband and high-speed mobile networks has fueled the rise of telecommuting and greatly contributed  to the rapid adoption of workplace flexibility, the research shows.

“Work is changing,” says Jeni Mundy, enterprise product manager director for Vodafone Group. “It’s now seen as what you do, rather than where you go and that trend is not going to slow down.”

Perhaps some of the most telling research to support Mundy’s prediction comes out of a study conducted by Erin Kelly, a professor of work and organization at M.I.T.,  and Phyllis Moen, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has made a career studying the challenges of working full time while raising a family and devoted considerable research to the ways corporations could reconfigure work to address the realities of the modern employee.

Their study at a Fortune 500 company showed that workers who participated in a pilot work flexibility program voiced higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced levels of burnout and psychological stress than employees who worked for the same company but did not participate.

The company that Moen and Kelly studied already had a workplace flexibility policy in which flexibility was given at the manager’s discretion. For the study, half the employees in the technology department were randomly assigned to a control group, which would continue operating under the company’s usual policy. The other technology employees participated in the pilot program where they learned about work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their work lives.

These practices focused on results, much as Vodafone’s Mundy stated, rather than face time at the office. Workers in the experimental group were told they could work wherever and whenever they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met. They then implemented these practices, which ranged from shifting their work schedules and working from home more to rethinking the number of daily meetings they attended, increasing their communication via instant messenger, and doing a better job of anticipating periods of high demand, such as around software releases.

Managers in the pilot group were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues as well as their professional development. To reinforce their support, these managers were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work and model behaviors aligned with those priorities—talking about or taking time off because they had an elder ill parent at home, a parent-teacher conference at school or their youngster’s championship game at the soccer field.

On the surface, the concept behind this experiment appeared straightforward. In fact, however, it was radical in that it undermined the conventions of an office culture that tied professionalism—perhaps especially for women—to a standard which required a person to present themselves at the office as someone unencumbered by the messiness of home life. These boundaries, Moen and Kelly suggested, were quite possibly counterproductive.

In fact, employees in the experimental group met their goals as reliably as those in the control group. Plus, they exhibited one additional characteristic: They were much happier. They said they felt more control over their schedules, support from their bosses and had sufficient time to spend with their families. What’s more, they were sleeping better, they were healthier and they experienced less stress.

As importantly, other studies which examined the same workplace, demonstrated that a ripple effect occurred. Employees’ children verbalized less volatility around their own daily stresses; adolescents saw the quality of their sleep improving.

A year later, and subsequently three years out, employees in the experimental group reported less interest in leaving the organization than those in the control group.

As the Vodafone study shows, many companies are already adopting flexible workplace policies, knowing it’s important to recruitment and retention. But Moen and Kelly’s research shows that flexibility reliant on manager discretion and may hold too many people back from acting on the policy.

Moen wants to see corporations overhaul their cultures so that flexibility becomes a default mode rather than a privilege—so that it becomes a “living, breathing, vital aspect of work” that is embedded in the culture of the organization.

“Today’s workers are bombarded by advice on how to juggle their work and family lives—we’re told to take up yoga, or learn to meditate, or only check email twice a day,” said Moen. “But individual coping strategies alone won’t solve the problem. Our study makes clear that organizational initiatives, including programs that promote greater flexibility and control for workers as well as greater supervisor support, are needed.”

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