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Why organizations should give employees more say in when, where and how they work

People work longer and with better technology, yet productivity isn't keeping pace. Why is that?

8 min read


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This post was adapted from APQC’s reportPreparing for the Future of Work.” Download an overview or view a webinar highlighting the findings.

This post was written by Lauren Trees, a principal research lead at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.

We know that people are spending more time working these days. And increasingly sophisticated technology allows workers to augment their own abilities and speed up repetitive tasks. Yet productivity growth has been nearly nonexistent over the past dozen years.

While the reasons behind this paradox are not fully understood, APQC’s recent global survey of more than 1,000 professionals sheds light on the challenges employees face, the frustration they feel, and practical solutions that leaders can implement to make people both happier and more productive at work.

The perils of overwork

It’s no surprise that we spend a lot of our lives working. More than half the respondents to APQC’s survey report working at least 45 hours in a typical week, and one-third report working more than 50 hours a week (Figure 1). The issue is likely compounded by the fact that many people spend time “working” on their mobile devices during evenings and weekends.

A majority of survey respondents said they always or often monitor and respond to work messages outside normal working hours, compared to only 22% who said they rarely or never do so.  And for the most part, these trends are consistent across generations and global regions.

Figure 1 (APQC)

Excessive hours and work/life imbalance are fundamental quality-of-life concerns that affect employee hiring, engagement, and retention. But the most compelling argument against overwork is that extra hours may not generate value for employers.

In fact, many employees perceive the “always on” mentality — in which they must look at, and potentially respond to, every message that pings on their phone, no matter what time of day it is or what other activities they might be engaged in — as a drain on overall productivity.

When asked about the impact of potential changes in their workplaces, 40% of survey respondents said they believe fewer expectations to monitor or respond to work messages outside normal hours would actually boost productivity (Figure 2). By contrast, only 13% said that paying more attention to work messages during off hours would make their workplaces more productive.

Figure 2 (APQC)

Although APQC’s survey only measures employee opinions, issues of employee burnout have been well-documented, and other studies show that overwork and always-on schedules are not correlated with higher rates of productivity. As output remains flat from extra hours, the ability to work well with others and make good calls actually decreases.

To ensure maximum productivity and engagement, leaders need to foster cultures that encourage balance and don’t add to employees’ stress and exhaustion. The best results accrue when talent has the opportunity to renew themselves for their next workday.

Employees want more autonomy and flexibility

In employees’ eyes, reciprocation is a fundamental issue. Having shown the flexibility and willingness to respond to work outside the office on their own time, they want their organizations to be more flexible in return regarding when, where, and how work gets done. And interestingly, they believe this flexibility would allow them to be more efficient and contribute more in the course of their work.

For instance, 60% of survey respondents said increased flexibility to customize their working schedules or hours would make them more productive (Figure 3). A similar proportion said that more flexibility to work from a home office or alternative location would boost their own and colleagues’ productivity — most likely from the ability to avoid transit time and minimize distractions when performing work that requires intense concentration.

Figure 3 (APQC)

60% also said they would benefit from extra flexibility to set aside certain time for meetings and collaborative work, suggesting that employees want to demarcate time for teamwork and individual work in order to maximize their efficiency and output. This point is emphasized by the leading requested change within APQC’s survey — additional flexibility to set aside certain times for individual work and reflection, which 67% of respondents believe would make them more productive.

People also expressed a need to shut off work distractions, both to concentrate on complex tasks and to recharge outside working hours. This aligns with existing research on the distracting nature of interruptions such as email and the amount of “switching time” required to get back into activities like analysis and writing that require sustained concentration.

Yet despite the clamor for change, the current state of workplace autonomy and flexibility is a mixed bag. Most office workers have a degree of flexibility in their working hours, but most are still required to be in the office five days a week.

88% percent of respondents have at least some flexibility in their work schedules. For a third of respondents, this means flexibility to adjust their arrival and departure times to avoid peak traffic times, align with their children’s schedules or meet other commitments. About one-quarter have the option to work longer hours some days in order to take off other days or partial days.

An additional one-quarter can work any hours or schedule as long as they complete their work, though this setup is significantly more common among male respondents.

However, there appears to be less flexibility to work remotely. Just 9% work five days a week from a home office or alternate location (Figure 4), and full-time remote work appears to be highly concentrated in North America and in certain industries, most notably professional services (25%) and software (28%).

Figure 4 (APQC)

Although some office roles simply cannot operate on flexible schedules, it is surprising in 2017 that many industries, including government, aerospace and automotive, have almost no remote employees. Across all industries, nearly half the respondents said they are never work remotely or do so less than once a month.

It appears that employers have not caught up with employee sentiment in this area. Many organizations are investing in increased access to work systems and documents through mobile tools. This enables employees to have greater autonomy in determining when, where and how they work — with greater productivity gains. But HR policies need to be updated to reflect this expanded technical capability and the accompanying employee expectations.

Outdated performance measures may limit flexibility — and associated productivity gains

When studying why organizations seem so hesitant to embrace flexible work policies, APQC identified imprecise and outdated performance measures as one possible culprit. If managers don’t fundamentally understand what their employees should be producing and at what rate/quality, then they are more likely to track imprecise measures such as the amount of time workers are at their desks. This is obviously an impediment to allowing people to choose their own work spaces and schedules.

When asked on a scale of 1 (strong disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) how much they agreed with the statement, “Everyone in the organization is held accountable for their work and the outcomes they generate,” respondents gave a mean response of 3.19, which was by far the lowest score across 12 sentiment statements APQC tested on the survey. It was also the only statement that a majority of respondents did not agree with.

Criticism of performance evaluations is often quickly dismissed with assumptions that employees just don’t like to be judged. However, the statement related to personal evaluations and accountability — “I am evaluated objectively and fairly based on my ability and actions” — received a higher agreement score (mean score of 3.69), with only 34% of respondents failing to agree. The difference in agreement with these two statements, combined with the fact that 43% of the respondents are managers, suggests an alternate perspective.

Based on the extent to which survey respondents desire flexibility to determine when, where and how they work, APQC’s interpretation is that many want to be measured according to their outputs and results — that is, their actual performance — rather than their hours of attendance or “time served.” This is likely the reason why so many disagree with current assessments of employee accountability.

Of course, autonomy and flexibility in the workplace are earned privileges. Employers should ensure policies are fair and make sense for employees, their managers and the organization. Employers also need to prepare managers to gauge performance in meaningful terms such as project completion and the quality of outputs.

Managers cannot judge performance without first understanding organizational expectations for balancing productivity with collaboration and innovation. It is a significant shift in mindset to focus on the quality of the work output and not how work is performed.

But given the level of employee interest in increased autonomy and flexibility, this approach can help organizations boost overall productivity and retain the best talent moving forward, especially for knowledge-intensive roles.

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