When employers are more flexible about how and when a job gets done, workers are healthier and happier.

A new study shows, companies that focus on results rather than face time in the office may end up with healthier employees.

When management is more flexible about how and when a job gets done, workers get more sleep and exercise, have the time to make doctors’ appointments and are less likely to come to work sick, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

By putting the focus on the end product — whether that is a report or customer satisfaction — the company allows people to make their own schedules, explained the study’s lead author Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology and McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair at the University of Minnesota. That lowers stress and allows people to better take care of their health, she added.

Moen and her colleagues stumbled on a unique opportunity when they learned that electronics retailer Best Buy was about to switch to a new work structure at its corporate headquarters. And because the company was going to make the switch one department at a time, the researchers would be able to compare workers from the same company — some working under the old structure and some under the new. It was, Moen said, a “natural experiment.”

The new structure was something called ROWE, or Results Only Work Environment.

To see what impact ROWE would have on employee health, Moen and her colleagues asked employees from a department that was about to switch over to ROWE to fill out a series of questionnaires that looked at everything from hours of sleep to whether employees went to the doctor when sick.

The researchers also asked another group of employees — from a department that wasn’t yet slated to change — to fill out the same questionnaires.

Six months later, Moen and her colleagues came back and questioned both groups again.

They found that employees from the department that had switched to ROWE were getting an hour more sleep each night compared to six months earlier. These workers were also finding more time to exercise and go to the doctor when they were sick. They were also far less likely to show up at work when they came down with a cold or flu.

The group from the department that had maintained status quo showed no such changes in health behaviors.

“Before ROWE, people said they would drag themselves to work no matter what their temperature was,” Moen said. “And they wouldn’t see the doctor. That’s because in [a standard work environment] it’s so important that we be seen as working hard that we don’t even have time to get to the doctor. And that has become a badge of honor.”

So, is this the wave of the future?

Moen thinks it is.

“To be competitive in the global economy employees are going to have to work smarter — and often do the jobs of two or three people,” she explained. “We have to give them greater control over their time so they can get everything done — so they can keep all the balls in the air without dropping them.”

Photo credit: The BM Rant