Taking Off

Understanding the importance of work-life balance, MIT pilots flexible working programs and finds success.

By Dr. Peter Hirst

Academic institutions are hotbeds of innovation, yet when it comes to developing and adopting workplace policies to accommodate today’s workers, higher education has been lagging behind other industries, reports Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace. This is a serious concern for MIT because the institution competes to retain and recruit the best talent across departments, labs, and centers. From industry giants such as Google, Biogen, and Akamai, to scores of exciting start-ups—many fueled by their proximity to MIT—Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachussetts is a battleground for top talent. As the economy picks up and workers feel more confident about their careers, MIT has to step up its efforts to continue to be among America’s best employers (the school was ranked number 12 in the Forbes 2016 survey).

Exception Becomes the Rule 

The Gallup report was very clear on what organizations need to do to not only hire and retain the best talent—but to keep employees engaged and productive. Its no surprise that a work-life balance is one of the key factors that today’s workers value, even above pay and job security. According to Gallup, the top five attributes candidates evaluate when considering taking a job with a different organization are:

1. The ability to do what they do best.

2. Greater work-life balance and better personal well-being.

3. Greater stability and job security.

4. A significant increase in income.

5. The opportunity to work for a company with a great brand or reputation.

A desire for greater work-life balance does not mean that people want to work less—what they want is more control over how, where, and when they work. In other words, workers want work flexibility.

Flex work has been around for ages and can mean different things to different people. Many organizations—including MIT—have had flexible work policies for a long time, too. For example, some organizations allow employees to work from home on Fridays or perhaps let a manager work remotely but comes in for office meetings. In a typical organization, employees are expected to report to the office for roughly the same time period each day, with exceptions being made on a case-by-case basis. In the past, the general idea of flex work was something of a favor to be bestowed upon a few lucky employees by enlightened bosses. Yet the modern workplace is changing; it’s mobile, geographically dispersed, and virtually connected.

Apply, Evaluate, Iterate

Overt and transparent flex work policies are a fairly recent development. First popularized by high-tech companies, then adopted by large professional services firms, flex work is becoming less of a novel idea and more of what people expect from a modern employer.

MIT is not likely to jump on the latest trend just because it is in vogue in Silicon Valley. Instead, the school tests different models, analyzes the data, and iterates its approach based on findings. MIT’s HR leaders began thinking about policies and support regarding job flexibility as a result of data from the Quality of Life Survey. The MIT Council on Family and Work conducts this survey every four years to gather employee input on many aspects of work, including flexibility. Results help inform HR policy decisions institute-wide. The 2012 survey showed that employees who had a manager “open to flexible work arrangements” reported both being less likely to leave MIT in three years and more satisfied with their ability to integrate their work and personal life. A more recent survey from 2016 found that 60 percent of all MIT employees incorporate some type of occasional or formal flexibility into their work schedules.

A couple of years ago, the MIT Sloan School of Management Office of Executive Education began testing a fundamentally new approach to how, where, and when employees work. The department did this by developing a set of team-based flexible work guidelines that engage the entire team instead of making individual accommodations.

The initial impetus for the executive education department’s foray into flexible work was simple: Traffic. A long-term office move to a new space was just a little too far from the main campus to walk in bad weather, but too close to drive. A time sink, either way. Regardless of location, the endless Boston-Cambridge construction and heavy traffic tend to make getting to and from the office on time every day a serious challenge. The group had to think hard about changing the way employees work to continue to serve clients and program participants, while not wasting time—and productive work hours—in traffic. The department’s program directors—team members who work with MIT faculty to design and deliver open enrollment and custom executive education programs—were already busy traveling. They are required to attend meetings on and off campus, travel for business, and engage in location-independent work practices. Remote work looked like a natural answer.

To do it effectively, the executive education group came up with technological solutions that enabled collaboration among colleagues wherever their location. And though the team is happy with the telepresence robots, virtual meetings, and instant communications, technology alone can’t guarantee effective collaboration and productivity. The department needed a whole new approach to working that would work for everyone in the group, regardless of location.

Here is where the HR department at Sloan stepped in and began evaluating its polices related to flexible work.

“We’ve had a flexible work policy at MIT for years, but the conversation that we were having now was about how we might start using it more consistently in the future,” says Bill Garrett, executive director of human resources at Sloan. “How could we move beyond just doing flexible work schedules as an accommodation to individual requests by employees—which was the primary way it was being used at the time—to thinking more strategically about flexible work?”

Garrett and his colleague Lucy Lui, director of human resources, engaged a work-life consulting firm to facilitate a series of working sessions for managers at MIT Sloan. The firm introduced the idea of a team-based approach to flex work. But for it to work, it required the group’s manager to be open to it and the entire team to agree that new flex policies best serve the group’s business goals. The executive education team’s experience has been very successful. As reported on many occasions, 100 percent of the department’s staff at least occasionally make use of flexible working informally, two-thirds have made a formal flexible work arrangement—whether it’s remote work or flexible hours—and the entire team has said they would recommend that other departments and organizations consider implementing comprehensive flex work policies.

Proven Success

The results of the 2012 Quality of Life survey brought to light the importance of flexible work to employee satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty to the organization. “The policies we had were written in 2004, and they focused largely on flexible work schedules and a little bit on telecommuting,” says Marianna Pierce, policy and compliance specialist for MIT’s HR department. “We realized we needed our policies to address remote work directly.”

At that time, the pilot at the executive education office was ending, and the results surpassed expectations:

Ninety percent of the team said that their family and personal life improved.

• Eighty-five percent agreed that their stress was reduced.

• Eighty percent said that morale and engagement improved.

• Sixty-two percent felt more trusted and respected.

Ninety-three percent believed that collaboration was better than before.

Seventy-two percent felt efficiency of time and resources improved.

• Sixty-two percent felt their workload management improved.

The pilot lasted six months. Fifty-two percent of the team started a formal flexible working arrangement during the pilot, with 14 percent already having a formal arrangement prior to the launch. The success of the pilot helped Sloan HR devise a plan for other teams across MIT. Three different groups have begun flexible work pilots of their own, and plans for more are underway. Today, MIT employs approximately 12,110 employees across various highly diverse departments, labs, and centers. Each person is a part of MIT, but business needs, team structures, and organizational cultures vary widely from group to group.

Creating flexible work guidelines to address and effectively accommodate these varied needs across MIT was no small task for these groups and HR. The model that the executive education department implemented worked well. Because it was the first pilot, the team was fortunate to have the help of a consultant, but bringing in outside experts to help with every department’s isn’t possible. “What we really needed to do was build internal capacity here in the MIT HR Department to guide and support our departments, labs and centers,” says Ronnie Mae Weiss, senior work-life manager at MIT’s Work-Life Center. “A team of internal HR facilitators, who are human resources officers (HROs) and work-life professionals, really shows MIT’s investment in having internal people who can broadly replicate these pilots moving forward.”

MIT’s HROs and work-life professionals see the organization’s three new pilots as opportunities to learn and continuously improve how MIT’s departments, labs, and centers address flexible work. “We already are looking at the number of users, reading the policies and guidelines, and what action is being taken,” says Weiss.

“We are collecting that data and I think we will have real evaluation data to analyze once these pilots are over. And we’ll learn from that. And we’ll adjust our future and support based on what we will learn. We will be listening carefully and really evaluating in a very thorough way, because that’s the only way that you get better at what you’re doing—you listen to other people and analyze that data and see what it means, and see what it means in comparison to other pilots.”

MIT’s new flex work policy is not set in stone. Rather, it’s a collection of “living documents”: a term that accurately reflects the nature and purpose of these guiding principles. To make this work, each team or business unit needs to come up with its own interpretation. For example, the executive education department’s guiding principles are:

1. Flex must always have a positive or neutral effect on business results, never a negative one;

2. Everyone should have access to flex, regardless of need;

3. Flexibility can be used for “where” people work or “when” people work; and

4. Flexible work arrangements are a shared responsibility between executive education staff, teams, and managers.

The policy may change periodically, but the guiding principles are meant to be reviewed regularly and be updated based on the evolving needs of an organization or a team. Three pilots are running now and as new data comes in, policies will evolve.


Dr. Peter Hirst is associate dean of executive education at the MIT Sloan School of Management.


SIDEBAR: The TOP FIVE ATTRIBUTES candidates evaluate when considering taking a job with a DIFFERENT COMPANY:

1. The ability to do what they do best;

2. Greater work-life balance and better personal well-being;

3. Greater stability and job security;

4. A significant increase in income; and

5. The opportunity to work for a company with a great brand or reputation.

Source: Gallup

Posted September 25, 2017 in Talent Acquisition

Leave a Reply