Coronavirus may finally force businesses to adopt workplaces of the future

March 10, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

The coronavirus is a terrible public health threat, but there is a hidden upside: It gives us a chance to rethink how work is organized and bring our policies into the 21st century.

To protect their workforce, firms are asking people to work at home. Our new research shows that more flexible work policies that give workers more control over when, where, and how they work don’t hurt business performance. Instead, such policies can lead to less stressed, more satisfied employees who are less likely to quit.

Today some firms do offer flex schedules, telecommuting, and reduced hours, but too often these arrangements are negotiated individually. An employee has to ask permission. The trouble with the “Mother may I?” model is that these arrangements are exceptions, not the rule; most employees are expected to work at the workplace, even as they are also presumed to be accessible 24/7.

Too often, there have been negative career consequences for those seeking to work at different times and places. Doing so can lead to poor performance evaluations, fewer promotions, and little in the way of salary growth. And, because women and especially moms are more likely to ask to work differently, gender inequality is reinforced. Wary of those costs, many employees who would like or need to work more flexibly shy away from requesting such “special privileges.”

Enter the coronavirus, and suddenly having employees work from home becomes much more attractive to companies. For many employees, it may be the only way to work for a period.

Based on an experiment we conducted with colleagues over a five-year period where flexibility was legitimated as “the way we work here” in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company, we believe businesses will find positive consequences to this new approach—provided their employees have more control over when they work and supervisors signal their support of workers’ personal lives.

Our study randomly assigned 56 teams in the company to one of two groups: The experimental group was given wide latitude on when and where to work, together with supervisor support for these new ways of working, while the control group continued working as usual. What we found in the group that had increased scheduling flexibility augurs well for making work-at-home arrangements the norm and fully accepted by leadership.

Employees feel less stressed, more energized, and report a greater sense of well-being. With fewer interruptions, employees are more productive—better able to concentrate, take stock of the tasks at hand, and innovate. Burnout goes down, and job satisfaction goes up. Teams concentrate on high-value results, getting rid of low-value routines (such as unnecessary meetings) that actually impede high performance. Teams develop ways of communicating that are effective, efficient, and enable time for concentrated work effort as well as for personal or family life. Time usually spent in stressful and often long commutes morphs into more relaxed time for personal pursuits or for concentrating on work. And with higher levels of job satisfaction, employees are less likely to look for other jobs or quit.

To be sure, the coronavirus situation brings real challenges beyond serious health concerns. Employees forced to work at home may not feel the same sense of control over their work choices as the participants in our study did. If schools close, many employees will be juggling their work with family needs daily. And there are still a great many jobs where the employee’s presence is required, as with many health care workers and low-income service workers. Around 30% of U.S. private company employees have no paid sick days, meaning they have to decide whether to lose income or stay home. Furthermore, if companies cut shifts or send hourly service workers home because of reduced customer demand, those workers and their families will face financial hits.

But for the many companies where employees can work remotely, the coronavirus crisis may be the nudge that companies need to let go of outdated policies and practices—and discover that working differently can be advantageous for everyone involved.

Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan distinguished professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight endowed presidential chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 

Their book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It, is available on March 17.

More opinion in Fortune:

—Why Warren dropping out shouldn’t cause women to give up hope
—Does Trump Have a Swing State Economy Problem? Yes—and No
—Limiting this governmental emergency power could curb presidential overreach
—Want to solve America’s problems? Start with broadband
Why you’re mad as hell about the Astros, but not Wells Fargo

Listen to our audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion