Flexible hours ease stress - but is everyone on board?
EVERYONE with a job knows how stressful it can be when personal priorities clash with work schedules.
The conflict could involve a continuing medical concern, taking care of children or ageing parents, or getting enough exercise or running errands.
A too-strict schedule combined with too many demands can cause workers to feel that they have let down their companies, their families and themselves.
A recent study, published in The American Sociological Review, aimed to see whether the stress of work-life conflicts could be eased if employees had more control over their schedules, including being able to work from home.
As might be expected, the answer was yes - but before everyone deserts their desks, some important caveats bear consideration.
The study, financed by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involved the information technology department of a large corporation.
The researchers included psychologists, physiologists, economists and public health scholars.
As part of the research, department managers received training to encourage them to show support for employees' family and personal lives, said Erin Kelly, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the lead authors of the study.
Then, employees were given much more control over their schedules than before. They "were free to work where and when they preferred, as long as the work got done", she said.
The results: The employees almost doubled the amount of time they worked at home, to an average of 19.6 hours from 10.2 hours. Total work hours remained roughly the same. Focusing on results rather than time spent at the office, and cutting down on "low value" meetings and other tasks, helped employees achieve more flexibility, Professor Kelly said.
Compared with another group that did not have the same flexibility, employees interviewed by the researchers said they felt happier and less stressed, had more energy and were using their time more effectively, Prof Kelly said.
There was no sign that the quality of work improved or declined with the changed schedules, she added.
She emphasised that for programmes like these to be successful, they must be applied department-wide and have the full support of managers.
"Sometimes, an individual supervisor may say that it's OK to work from home, but these kinds of deals are happening under the radar - a signal that they aren't really accepted," she said.
The message is not that you must work from home, she added. Many studies have shown how important face-to-face interaction can be in the workplace.
Unexpected insights and collaborative possibilities can emerge when people are in the same room, whether in planned or spontaneous conversations. (Instant messaging and e-mail from home just aren't the same.)
Just being seen in the office is important, too, regardless of what you are doing.
According to Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at the University of California, Davis, people who spend normal hours in the office are perceived as more responsible and dependable than those who are in the office less.
And, if they work extra hours, they are more likely to be seen as more committed and dedicated. They could just be surfing the Web or e-mailing their friends - but the face time still matters.
This perception can directly affect employees' performance evaluations, according to research she helped conduct involving a technology company in the San Francisco Bay area.
Employees know this.
Professor Elsbach found that some workers developed elaborate rituals to give the impression that they had only briefly stepped away when they were actually at home or at the gym - by draping a coat over their chair, for example, or putting open boxes of Chinese takeout on their desks.
Prof Elsbach said the tendency to attach positive traits to longer hours in the office is often subconscious, which makes it hard to combat. Companies need to raise awareness of this hidden bias and show widespread and uniform support for flexible scheduling, she said.
Otherwise, "people who telecommute are going to be unfairly penalised", she said.