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Employer Flexibility Aids Workers - and the Firm

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As a marketing support manager for Xerox, Jill Allen assumed that the firm's family-oriented policies served employees well. Yet when researchers from the Ford Foundation looked closely at those policies, their findings surprised Ms. Allen and other managers.

"The use of flexible work systems was not really meeting people's personal needs or the needs of the business," says Allen, who works in Lewisville, Texas. "We weren't always able to address things people wanted without a lot of red tape."

After considerable research, Xerox managers found ways to cut that red tape. By giving employees more power within their work groups to set their own hours, plan vacation schedules, and take care of personal needs, Allen says, "We eliminated the need for a manager to have to be involved in those decisions." Managers also expanded flexible work schedules to include all employees, not just those with caregiving responsibilities.

Results were impressive. Absenteeism dropped 30 percent at the customer administration center where Allen works. Two other Xerox offices also reported higher revenues, greater productivity, and increased customer satisfaction.

The positive effects of empowering employees lie at the heart of a six-year Ford Foundation study of three companies - Xerox, Corning, and Tandem Computers. Called "Relinking Life and Work: Toward a Better Future," it shows that restructuring work to help employees' personal lives can yield significant bottom-line results.

Workers with a sense of control over their lives, the report finds, are more efficient, productive, and satisfied.

"The Ford Foundation study confirms, for the first time, that disregarding people's lives outside of work causes people to live fragmented lives, and organizations to get half-people," says Peter Senge, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Organizational Learning in Cambridge.

To make lives better and work more effective, some companies are creating self-managed work teams like Allen's. By moving away from a hierarchical "top-down" structure to a "flatter" organization, they are giving people at lower levels more power. At Xerox, researchers also devised mutually agreed upon "quiet times" when interruptions were banned.

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