One Company s Experiences

One Company's Experiences

A multiyear action research project, supported by the Ford Foundation, enabled us to work with a company known for its leading-edge employee benefits. Although the company had a full array of policies and procedures for flexible work arrangements, employees were barely using the policies and benefits for two reasons: First, employees assumed that family benefits applied only to a few people for part of their work lives (primarily women with young children), and, second, there were career repercussions for those employees who did take advantage of them. The result was that the benefits were underutilized, particularly by men, single workers, and career-oriented mothers.

We negotiated with the company to try a different approach that was not based on benefits and policies. We wanted to connect work to personal life (broadly defined to include both family and community) and to use this connection as a catalyst for changing work practices. We worked jointly with a corporate team to define:

  • A current state—The culture unnecessarily creates conflict between work and personal life, which has negative consequences for the business and for the equitable treatment of employees.

  • A desired state—The culture capitalizes on work-personal life issues as an opportunity to create innovative, productive work practices.

Using an action research method, we worked at a number of sites in the company that represented the major parts of the business. At each site, we collaborated with different groups to see if together we could change aspects of work to meet a double goal: Enable employees to better integrate their work with their personal lives and help the site meet its business goals. And in each case, we were able to make this productive connection.

Less Stressful On-Time Product Launch

The first group we worked with was a product development team that had a tough task: Produce a new product, using new technology, in a much shorter time than they'd ever done, but with no additional resources.[1] The group consisted of engineers, both men and women, single and married, with and without children. The engineers wanted very much to meet the ambitious schedule. They knew that this product was important for the company and that their careers were tied to its success. So they were working hard. In this group, working hard meant working long hours and coming in evenings and weekends. There seemed to be an unquestioned belief that, given the situation they were in and the importance of the product, they had no choice but to work additional hours.

People told us that they needed to put in long hours because they couldn't get their individual work done during the normal workday. Meetings, other engineers' requests for help, schedule checks, and management reviews—all deprived them of continuous, concentrated time needed to produce the systems that the product required. The result was that they were working in a continual crisis mode. Although people were aware that there were problems with this way of working, their attempts to address the issue through detailed process redesign usually made the situation worse.

Looking at the work patterns from the viewpoint of the engineers' personal lives uncovered different aspects of the problem. Many "interruptions" turned out to be unnecessary or unproductive. We also began to understand why the unit continued to work this way, even though almost everyone saw that it was less than efficient. For example, people noted that the norm was to reward individual heroics: Someone would get kudos for solving a visible problem even if that person had caused it in the first place! So there was no incentive in the system to prevent problems or to evaluate what were true emergencies and what could wait. Having a crisis to respond to actually helped a person be seen as a team player; it was an opportunity to demonstrate that he or she cared about the work.

We worked with the team in designing an experiment to change some of the work practices. With the double goal of changing work norms so the team members could get their individual work done during the day and reduce the tendency to proliferate emergencies, they came up with a plan to restructure their daily activities into "quiet times" and "interactive times". The results of the experiment were remarkable. The team achieved an on-time launch of the new product and received several excellence awards for quality. On the personal side, team members and their supervisor reported feeling more in control of their own time, less stressed, and less likely to take work and worries home with them at night. They also found themselves thinking twice before interrupting someone, even when it wasn't quiet time, and found that the interactions they did have were more productive and focused. Managers, trying to respect quiet time, reduced the number of status reports they requested and found that this made the engineers more, not less, productive.

What we learned at this site is that looking at work through the lens of employees' personal lives raised aspects of work that not only were creating individual stress but were also interfering with the attempt to shorten the time to market. Once everyone understood this connection, it was possible to introduce changes that helped both personal and business goals (see "Product Development Team").

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Product Development Team

Type of work

Software engineering


Professional; the majority are men.

Business issues

Shorten time to market.

Personal issue

Long hours


Team operates in continual crisis situation.
Rewarding of individual heroics undermines teamwork.


Analyze how time is used.


Create quiet times and interaction times.

Business results

Launch product on-time, despite contrary expectations.
Mitigate oversupervision by managers.
Help engineers use time more effectively by distinguishing between
interruptions and critical interactions.

Personal results

Less stress and pressure
Less work during nonwork hours for some engineers
More control over work and personal life

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Reduced Absenteeism and Improved Customer Service

The second site, a customer administration center, dealt with customers on billing, scheduling, and so on, via computer.[2] To increase customer satisfaction, the site was trying to become an organization of multiskilled, self-managed work groups. The employees had had cross-functional training and had been reorganized into multifunctional groups, but management didn't know where to go next and was waiting for corporate empowerment training to make the change.

The workers were nonexempt, and their hours were not long, but rigid. The result was a lot of absenteeism and lateness, which, according to managers, reduced their ability to serve customers. So managers tightly monitored the way people worked, resulting in a highly controlled environment.

When we asked people what made the work difficult to integrate with their personal lives, they mentioned the rigidity. For example, despite the expressed need of many employees and an array of flexible policies on the books, very few of them were actually used. Most requests for flexibility were restricted to changing the beginning and end of the workday by a half-hour or so. Since managers felt they always had to oversee their employees, they were understandably reluctant to give more leeway. Moreover, employees who wanted to take advantage of the benefits had to submit a plan to management indicating their need and documenting how they would meet business goals. Reluctant to relinquish control, management typically sat on these plans or returned them, requesting more detailed documentation. Few requests were granted, and fewer and fewer requests were made, in a selfreinforcing cycle that systematically disempowered employees.

When we reported our findings to the senior team, it became clear that we had raised aspects of the work culture that not only made the working conditions difficult for the employees, but also undermined the managers' efforts to improve the unit's effectiveness. Their highly controlled, individualistic way of managing partly explained why they were having difficulty moving toward empowerment and selfmanaged teams.

In response, senior management proposed a three-month experiment: Each employee could establish any schedule that he or she wanted, as long as the work got done. After some confusion about what this meant, some dramatic changes occurred. First, almost everyone asked for different hours, men and women, single and married, managers and front-line workers. Given the various schedules proposed, managers realized they could no longer deal with the requests on an individual basis and had to bring the groups together to decide how to get the work done. Obviously, the groups had to compromise, which gave them their first experience in self-management.

A 30 percent reduction in absenteeism made managers see the value in relinquishing some of the control they had felt was necessary. Customer service improved as service hours were extended due to more liberal employee schedules. The organization was on its way toward the transformation it had sought but had not been able to achieve. Employees now had the flexibility to manage pressing issues in their lives.

What we learned from this example is that using a personal lens to understand working conditions helps to identify ways in which old cultural assumptions undermine new initiatives. In this situation, we found that letting work groups manage their own schedules helped them to develop as self-managed teams and serve their customers better (see "Customer Administration Center").

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Customer Administration Center

Type of work

Routine, clerical


White-collar; the majority are women.

Business issues

Improve customer service.
Move to self-managed, empowered teams.

Personal issue

Rigid schedules


Culture of control leads to zero-sum view of flexibility and productivity.
Culture of conservatism interferes with the risk-taking required to move to
self-managed teams.


All employees have flexible work arrangements.


Teams learn about self-management by taking control of flexible arrangements.


Absenteeism reduced by 30 percent.


Improved customer service from more coverage.
Teams learn to work in empowered ways.


Less stress and pressure


Time to attend to family and community issues
More control over work and personal life

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Cross-Functional Synergies and Predictable Schedules

Our work at the third site also produced benefits to both the employees and business goals, but in a different way. In a sales and service district set up to sell and service all the company's products, one product group in particular was consistently below target.[3]

The group was organized as a partnership, but the functions were quite independent. Salespeople, both men and women who were paid on commission, had very difficult selling targets and thus worked long hours. Service people, primarily bluecollar men, had to respond to service calls at all hours and were beset by uncertainty about their schedules. Neither group had much respect for the other and they had little experience working together.

Our analysis indicated that there were unrealized synergies between the two groups. Not only could they help each other be more productive, but they could support each other in ways that would ease the stresses in their lives. In collaboration with the district leadership, we decided to experiment with a cross-functional team. The team met for nine months and made a dramatic turnaround.

At first, all the old antagonisms surfaced, and the members did not understand how they could help each other. But when one service manager reported that three of his people were planning to retire, the salespeople realized that this would adversely affect their own ability to plan installations. Thus began a slow realization that working together could improve their performance. They discovered further synergies when the service people did the groundwork so the salespeople could close a big sale.

As a result, the group, which had not been able to meet its sales targets for some time, was among the highest revenue-producing units in the district. Further, the members found ways to support each other that led to more control and predictability in their lives.

What we learned from this site was that creativity and commitment are best mobilized in response to people's personal needs. This became clear when we discovered that management had once before tried to form a cross-functional team around this same product group, without positive results. What, the managers wondered, was different about what we had done? The significant difference was that we began by looking at the stresses in people's personal lives. We brought the members together to consider how they could ease their work situation to make their lives more livable, which motivated them to engage the issues more creatively (see "Sales and Service District").

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Sales and Service District

Type of work

Sales—individual, based on commission
Service—individual, driven by calls


Sales—equal number of men and women
Service—the majority are men.

Business issue

Increase revenues for poorly performing product group.

Personal issues

Sales—long hours driven by ever-increasing stretch goals in bad economic climate.
Service—unpredictability of hours driven by promised fast response time.


Sales and service work at cross-purposes.
Failure to realize synergies in working with the same customers.

Experimental intervention

Cross-functional product team

Business results

Highest revenues in district
Synergies recognized (service can help sell and sales can help on routine service).

Personal results

More control over hours
More mutual support

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Since this initial project, we have worked with many other work teams, at many different levels, and in many different organizations. The results are similar. Whether the situation involves scientists, purchasing agents, loan processors, line workers, or researchers, connecting the two seemingly incompatible aims of better integrating personal lives and more effectively meeting business goals leads to a win all around. When we re-examine work practices and organizational cultures through the lens of employees' personal lives, not only do formerly invisible inefficiencies and dysfunctional work practices surface, but creative, unforeseen solutions emerge. Making this unexpected connection is a powerful way to engage employee involvement and creativity. By adding personal payoff to organizational changes, employees are energized and motivated to undertake them. The bottom line is that implementing these innovations not only helps employees integrate work and personal life, but also leads to increases in productivity and effectiveness.

[1]For a full description of the work at this site, see Perlow (1995).

[2]For a full description of this site, see Johnson (1994).

[3]For a full description of this case, see Eaton and Harvey (1996).

Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century
Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century
ISBN: 026263273X
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 214

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