There are lots of good reasons to offer your work force some form of work-life flexibility. It builds morale. It helps retention and recruitment. It’s the right thing to do.

A new study pinpoints another reason that’s awfully compelling: If you don’t help employees balance work and home lives, they’ll figure out their own ways, irrespective of your rules and policies – ways that may not be productive or constructive.

Doing as they please?
The study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, advances the concept of “worker agency” – meaning that if workers feel an irreconcilable conflict between work and home duties, they’ll bend the rules, on their own or with the complicity of co-workers or sympathetic supervisors.

Here’s how the study put it: “When the demands of personal and family life come up against rigidity, workers often feel compelled to maneuver around these formal bounds, thus allowing them opportunities to attend to … emergencies, crises, and unexpected … family and personal matters.”

The study, which observed workers in a manufacturing plant for two years, gave examples like these:

  • One man wanted to attend his boys’ big football game, and he’d arranged with his supervisor to have time off. When the time came, though, the supervisor reneged, so the worker feigned car trouble. Result: He got to the game, but was demoted.
  • Another worker wanted to be at the bedside of her critically ill father-in-law, but her supervisor refused her the time off because the FMLA doesn’t cover in-laws. So she talked to her family doctor, who obligingly said she was under serious stress and put her off work for two weeks.

The point: These companies’ get-tough policies didn’t work. The employees took the time anyway. All the policies did was turn good workers into cheaters.

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