Offering key employees the opportunity to work fewer hours at reduced pay and benefits might seem like heresy – particularly in U.S. corporations. But a new study has revealed that some household name employers have woken up to the very real benefits that such flexibility can bring.
According to Dr. Ellen Ernst Kossek of Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, flexible work schedules that offer reduced workloads could be a key way of attracting, retaining and motivating top-performing employees.
She and colleague Mary Dean Lee of McGill University in Montreal looked at a number of American and Canadian firms that had been experimenting with reducing workloads for at least six years.
Their study included such big names as IBM, Starbucks, Deloitte & Touche and General Mills, where 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 employers, including greater productivity, less turnover and cost savings.
"Some of these benefits are counter-intuitive but nevertheless they are real," Kossek insisted.
But the most compelling reason for advocating reduced workloads for professional employees is that they are a good way to retain top performers, something that every organisation wants to do.
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 organisation.
And there can be other hidden benefits, Kossek agues. For example, she said, 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.
But the reality, Kossek said, 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. "It is an enlightened manager who can work past tradition and try new strategies."
She added that a reduced-load work is a win-win situation and the results are better when the arrangements suit both the organisation and the worker.
"They should not be done just to accommodate an employee. There has to be a benefit for the organisation," she stressed.
Most some positions can be redesigned to accommodate alternative arrangements, and new ways of working should be made more widely available, she said.
"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."
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 said.
The bottom line is that working with employees to develop customised work schedules pays off for the organisation.
"It is not smart for companies to hire talented people then overload them with work and have them leave, she concluded.