Robert Karasek, an industrial engineer and sociologist, and Tores Theorell, a specialist in industrial medicine, have been studying stress and jobs for a long time. Their epidemiological studies over decades have carefully measured the stress level of hundreds of jobs and the impact of those jobs on the health of workers (particularly heart disease). They created a model that describes each job they have studied into two factors: 1) the levels of “psychological demands” of the job and 2) the “decision latitude” or control of the worker to manage how he or she could deal with psychological demands. The results of their work show that those workers with the greatest risk for illness are those with high psychological demands and low decision latitude. In other words, if you have a stressful job that does not provide much choice in how you are able to manage stress, you were more likely to suffer mentally and physically. Theorell describes how workers who have control over their work and work environment typically have more positive health outcomes, even if they have stressful jobs:

“The combination of high psychological demand and high decision latitude is defined as the active situation. In this situation, the worker has been given more resources to cope with high psychological demands because he/she can make relevant decisions, such as planning working hours according to his/her own biological rhythm. In addition he/she has greater possibilities to improve coping strategies – facilitating feeling of mastery and control in unforeseen situations. This situation corresponds to psychological growth.” (Berkman, Social Epidemiology, 2000)

Karasek and Theorell’s work emphasizes the importance of having choice on the job, and having some choice as to where, when and/or how you work can impact more than health, it can also impact engagement and the bottom line. My colleagues and I recently did a study for a global financial services firm including a survey of over 9,000 respondents from 18 locations across the globe. On average, and consistenly, 68% of the respondents across locations and service lines believed the company’s flexible work policies (allowing them to work where, when and how they need to) made them more effective.

  • 70% of respondents said they were more effective serving their clients.
  • 68% of respondents said flexiblity helped them to work more effectively on individual tasks.
  • 67% of respondents were better able to manage their professional/personal life.
  • 66% of respondents believe flexibility helped them to be more effective when collaborating with others.

Sally Augustin, a noted environmental psychologist claims, “When we don’t feel in control of what happens to us in a place, we are stressed, discouraged and frustrated. Feeling in control is the key here; we don’t have to actually exercise control to reap psychological benefits.” Just knowing that we can adjust our environment to better suit our needs makes a huge difference in how we feel about work and our ability to be productive.

The good news is that now, more than ever, we have choices about where, when and how we work. Technology is small and mobile, our need for paper is reducing significantly and managers everywhere are learning how to handle virtual teams. Most companies have adopted some form of “alternative work” policy for those functions that can be performed out of the office or in a non-traditional way. Even when employees are in the office, they are given choices beyond just “one office” to work.

This “choice” idea in the workplace is taking hold. In a recent survey a few colleagues and I conducted for the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) of 538 companies across services, manufacturing and a variety of other industries, respondents claim they are already using or about to roll out the use of touchdown spaces (69%), activity-based settings (52%), shared address (51%), hoteling (50%), group address (46%) and free address (38%) in their workspaces.

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In many workplaces, culturally, there is still a stigma for working in a more “mobile” fashion, but the tides are turning as work flexibility helps companies recruit and retain the best and the brightest.  In this same IFMA survey, respondents were asked why they are exploring new ways of provisioning employees, both in their “primary workplace” and offsite. The responses were overwhelming: companies are adopting these new policies to support work / life balance for employees, flexibility, aligning with organizational goals, aligning with advances in technology, and the perceived benefit to workers. Cost savings and reducing real estate are also important drivers (and an important part of the business case to try these new ways of workgin), but they were chosen less often than many of the organizational or employee-driven goals.

So what can your organization to do promote choice in your workplace?

  • Provide choice for where employees can work. Technology has greatly increased the ability of workers to get things done outside of the traditional office. For example, many people can work effectively and efficiently at home, in a satellite office, a plane, train, hotel room, park or coffee shop. The key is determining what activities are best suited for more “flexible work” and providing employees the right tools to be mobile, like a laptop, cell or soft phone, VPN connection, security controls in place, etc. More portable tasks might include making personal or business calls, reading and responding to email, reading industry magazines or work materials or just doing some deep thinking, which might be hard to do at the office.
  • Provide choice as to when employees can work. Flexible work schedules are an alternative to the traditional 9 to 5, 40-hour work week. They allow employees to vary their arrival and/or departure times. Under some policies, employees must work a prescribed number of hours per pay period and be present during a daily “core time.” Other arrangements include job sharing, where a full-time position is split between two co-workers by mutual agreement, and benefits are given in proportion to the number of hours each person works. A third example is a compressed work week where employees complete their weekly work hour requirements in fewer than five days. Whatever the arrangement, employee choice is at the center of these policies and something that could work well for you if your employer allows.
  • Allow employees to choose how they work. It may be too difficult for your company to allow certain employees to choose where and when they work, but helping them change the way they carry out their workday might be a strategy to help them cope with stress and the daily grind. Here are some ways companies are helping employees take control of their health and increase “control” of their workday through the work setting.
    • Standing up. Even if the company does not provide adjustable desks, it may be possible for employees to change position or location in their workplace so that they can work while standing, like working a table in the break room or attending a “stand up” meeting.
    • Walking. Walking meetings are all the rage today and have gotten glowing endorsements from people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and President Barack Obama. Walking meetings help you burn calories but also the dynamics of these meetings are different. People who walk and meet claim that they are more creative, productive and positive than “sitting meetings.”
    • Taking the stairs. Taking the stairs is a built-in cardio workout with no gym fee! If you or your employees need incentives to avoid the elevator, consider this: U.S. adults, on average, gain about a pound a year and just two additional minutes of stair climbing per day should prevent that gain.

The key with trying any of these flexible workplace strategies, is to study which ones might work best for your organization’s culture and the needs of the job before they are rolled out. They also, often, require change management and training. Managers and employees cannot change their behavior overnight and everyone needs help learning how to work differently as individuals and as teams.

Flexible workplace strategies also need to be measured by how “productive” the workforce is before and after adopting them. IFMA survey respondents suggested a number of ways organizations have measured this internally – which varies greatly by the industry and culture of the organization, and includes employee engagement and morale, individual performance, team performance, sales goals, new business relationships, data output and production metrics.