Category Archives: work/life balance

Egg Freezing: Unique Benefit or Bad Idea?

pregnant womanThe Apples and Facebooks of the world are known for their original and generous employee perks and benefits. But these companies find themselves in the news this week for offering a new benefit that goes well beyond the usual on-site dry cleaning services and free haircuts.

Earlier this year, Facebook began covering up to $20,000 for female employees to freeze and store their reproductive eggs, so they can put off pregnancy as they establish themselves during their prime career-building years. Apple has announced it will start doing the same in January 2015.

Cryopreservation and egg storage could be seen as the latest advance from the tech firms that continue to blaze the trail for employee benefits that help attract and retain the best and brightest.

“Egg freezing is one in a long line of innovative HR practices intended to be attractive to educated people with many employment options, seeking a focus on flexibility in the difficult balance between work and life,” according to James Hayton, professor of human resource management at the Warwick Business School in Coventry, England.

“The cost appears to be moderate, although not trivial, at about 20 percent of average salary at these firms,” says Hayton. “The benefits, in terms of attracting and retaining employees, can be expected to significantly outweigh the costs. The positive PR will pay for itself by signaling these employers’ values with respect to women’s control over this important life choice to prospective female employees.”

All that said, the practice isn’t without its detractors.

Healthcare law and bioethics expert Seema Mohapatra, for example, wrote in August that egg freezing “seems to put a Band-Aid on the problem of how difficult it is for women to have a career and raise a family concurrently.”

This week, one woman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times that delaying fertility for female employees is “certainly in the employer’s interest … from a business perspective. But in my experience, it’s more personal: Are you married or not married, and if you’re not and you’re over 35, it’s a health thing.”

In the same Times article, Mohapatra expressed concern that women who “do not fit that profile” could feel pressure to use the benefit.

“What I worry about is it’s not going to be just used by that population, but [it’s] going to be used by the population in their 20s and early 30s saying, ‘If I want to be seen as a serious employee and make it to vice president, I can’t take maternity leave,’” said Mohapatra, a law professor at the Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Fla.

Critics may also note that, “while perks such as these are very impressive and innovative, broader pay equity might be an even stronger signal of the importance of women in the workplace,” says Hayton.

Additionally, companies offering this benefit could draw the ire of religious groups with serious reservations over “the tricky domain of bioethics and reproductive choices,” he continues, adding that other observers may be “squeamish about the degree of paternalism when employers show concern for their employees’ reproductive choices.”

While we’re certain to see these and other strong reactions in the days to come, Hayton, for one, is confident that employers providing egg freezing options for female employees will prove to be a good thing.

“Ultimately … these policies are innovative and forward-thinking, and likely to benefit the employers [that are] creative enough, and bold enough, to offer them.”

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Get Outta Here!

leaving officeMany contend that the unique perks the Googles and the Qualcomms of the world offer employees—on-site dry cleaners, pet-friendly workspaces, employer-hosted farmers markets—are as much about keeping people at work as they are about making their lives easier.

So it was interesting to read this recent Washington Post article, which highlighted a few companies that seem intent on helping their employees actually stay away from the office, and remain disconnected from their work after punching out for the day.

For instance:

  • Redwood, Calif.-based software company Evernote offers employees a $1,000 stipend for taking a full week away from work.
  • FullContact, a Denver-headquartered provider of contact-management software, gives employees $7,500 a year if they take time off of work. According to the Post, use of vacation time among the firm’s employees shot up after the policy was introduced.
  • Dutch design firm Heldergroen makes it impossible—or at least pretty uncomfortable—for workers to hang around the office past 6 p.m., when employee desks are lifted to the ceiling via steel cables, and all furniture is cleared from the floor.
  • Menlo Innovations opts not to offer technological tools for remote work. No employer-provided laptops, no virtual private networks and no remote-access software. The message to employees is clear, according to Richard Sheridan, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software design firm’s CEO. “You can’t take work home with you,” Sheridan told the Post.
  • Quirky, a crowd-sourced consumer product maker with headquarters in New York, takes things a step further, shutting down completely for four weeks out of the year. Founder and CEO Ben Kaufman began the practice in early 2013, closing Quirky’s doors the first week of every new quarter.

Yes, most of these and the other examples cited in the Post piece are smaller and/or start-up type tech companies. But, with larger, more traditional-minded organizations always looking for ways to help employees strike that ever-elusive work/life balance—and position themselves as “cool” places to work—wouldn’t it be interesting if we started to see more Fortune 500 firms co-opt this piece of the freewheelin’, forward-thinking start-up culture?

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Larry Page Wants You to Work Less

Larry PageIt may seem a tad unrealistic to those of us who didn’t help start a billion-dollar behemoth of a company such as Google, but you have to like Larry Page’s concept of a world where we all spend less time at work. At least in theory.

In a recent interview with technology venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Page and his Google co-founder Sergey Brin touched on subjects ranging anywhere from the San Francisco housing market to artificial intelligence.

During the interview, Page also offered up his vision of an ideal working world, in which employees work fewer hours, are more productive and “have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.”

While theorizing that many of today’s employees are driven to work longer and harder mostly by a desire to feel valued and useful, fulfilling that need shouldn’t require a superhuman effort, he said.

“I think there’s a problem that we don’t recognize that,” said Page. “And I think there’s also kind of a social problem. A lot of people aren’t happy if they don’t have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. [People] need to feel needed and wanted, and need to have something productive to do.

“If you really think about the things you need to make yourself happy—housing, security, opportunity for your kids—it’s not that hard for us to provide those things,” continued Page. “So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet peoples’ needs is just not true. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that needs to go into that, is pretty small.”

Page suggested a few alternatives to free up more of employees’ time while maintaining a productive work environment, such as adopting four-day work weeks, or splitting full-time jobs between part-time workers.

“I was talking to [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson about this,” he said. “They have a huge problem there. They don’t have enough jobs in the U.K. He’s been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time [employee], so at least the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job.”

Brin wasn’t so sure that idea would fly, however.

“I don’t think that, in the near term, the need for labor is going away,” said Brin. “It gets shifted from one place to another, but people always want more stuff, or more entertainment, or more creativity or more something.”

Brin has a point there. And there’s also the question of how the average employee would maintain his or her current standard of living on a part-time job that would presumably mean less money. Page didn’t shed any light on just how that might work. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be an HR professional given the task of clearing it up for a full-time employee who was just bumped back to part-time status.

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Removing the Stigma Around Working Dads

HRE has done its share of stories on the plight of working fathers in recent years. But with Father’s Day approaching this Sunday, I figure it might be a good time to revisit this important, but frequently below-the-radar, topic.

I suspect that line of thinking also went into the White House’s scheduling of its first-ever conference on the challenges facing working dads earlier this week.

As Jason Furman and Betsey Stevenson of the Council of Economic Advisers wrote on the White House blog, the purpose of the conference was to explore “the state of working dads and how businesses can create a win-win culture to enable these fathers to be more involved parents and better employees.”

464194655In his remarks at the event, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez told participants

“We need to do more to give people the tools to be responsible employees and good parents, so they don’t have to choose between the families they love and the jobs they need. We need to make sure people are able to put food on the table, but also to be at that table to eat dinner.”

Perez, who noted that the United States is one of only four nations that fails to offer any form of paid parental leave, went on to say: “We need to take on a whole host of issues that, frankly, have been absent from the national agenda. We have to start talking about child care, which is shockingly expensive in the United States. We have to lean in on paid leave, flexibility, work/life balance and family-friendly workplaces.” (In case you’re wondering, the other three nations are Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea!)

Among those on hand to share their insights and experiences was New York Mets’ second baseman Dale Murphy, who — some of you may recall — received a lot of flak from radio commentators when he missed opening day in April to be with his wife for the birth of their son, Noah. (WFAN radio host Mike Francesa said on his show, “Go see your baby be born and come back. You’re a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help.”)

As Time reports, Murphy told participants he doesn’t regret his decision: “When Noah asks me one day, what was it like when I was born, I think it will go so much farther that I cut his umbilical cord. Long after I won’t be a baseball player anymore, I will still be a father and a husband.”

Murphy, of course, isn’t your typical employee. (What baseball player is?) But his experience is still an important reminder that companies, in general, need to do more to remove the stigma associated with dads taking time off following the births of their children and to be there for other important milestones in their lives.

Personally, I wish I demonstrated a similar fortitude early in my career. Soon after my wife gave birth to our first son, I was scheduled to take my first business trip to Europe. At the time, I felt it would be detrimental to my career not to go—so I went. It’s a decision I very much regret making—and one, I might add, my wife, to this day, won’t let me forget.

I suspect these kinds of stories are more common than one would like to think, though hopefully, some of the stigma has diminished with the increasing realization that working dads, much like working moms, should be entitled to a more healthy work/life balance.

Speaking to this point, research published last month in Springer’s Journal of Business and Psychology, titled “The ‘New’ Dad: Navigating Fathering Identity Within Organizational Contexts,” makes the case that men continue to view their roles as fathers in the context of the workplace.

Through in-depth interviews with 31 fathers who all have working spouses, the researchers from the University of Massachusetts/Lowell, Northeastern University and Boston College found there continues to be a “strong cultural perspective that, when men become fathers, little will change for them on the work front.” (The researchers also point out that organizations, managers and co-workers still—italics are mine—do not fully recognize and openly appreciate men’s caregiving roles.)

Judging from this recent study and others that preceded it, companies still have a lot more work to do in terms of removing the stigma surrounding working dads. From my perspective, the White House conference seems to be a good step in the right direction. (I also would imagine that the topic will be addressed again on June 23, when the White House holds its Summit on Working Families.) But it probably also shouldn’t be overlooked that employers have the ability to do something about this issue today, as a small but growing number of forward-thinking companies (including some featured at this week’s conference) have already demonstrated.

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Telework May Be Harmful to their Health

Telework has been taking its share of hits lately. And I’m not referring to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer or Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly and their well-reported decisions to either end or limit telecommuting at their companies.

139246933 -- tired teleworkerI’m talking about research conducted awhile back — and recently reported on — by Timothy Golden, associate professor at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. His study of 316 adult employees at a large computer company found working from home can enhance feelings of physical and mental fatigue in people who are already having a hard time balancing their personal and professional lives.

So, basically, working at home might not be so good for you. Tell that to the employees trying to convince you otherwise. Or the work/life experts telling you the same.

As noted in a piece on the Springer website, Golden’s work-at-home (or primarily work-at-home) participants were asked to answer questions about the levels of work-to-family conflict they experienced, including whether work kept them from family activities more than they would have liked, and whether they were too stressed to do the things they enjoy at home due to pressures of work. Golden also looked at levels of family-to-work conflict, such as time spent on family responsibilities interfering with work responsibilities, and difficulties concentrating on work because of stress from family responsibilities. Levels of work exhaustion and the extent and timing of telework were also assessed.

Golden and his crew found the more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion. Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home, irrespective of whether they worked during traditional or non-traditional work hours. However, those who had lower levels of work-family conflicts suffered less exhaustion, which was further reduced by teleworking during either traditional or non-traditional work hours.

As this piece about Golden’s research in Parade magazine says:

You’d think with more time at home, and no commute, in most cases, that things would be easier. But when you work at home, there are constant reminders of the work/family conflict, such as laundry and dirty dishes — not to mention interruptions by children and other family members. This actually raises stress levels, and is why having a dedicated work space and boundaries is your best bet if you want to leave the world of cubicles. Then, when you add on things like possible poor posture, lack of exercise and bad eating … well, you can see why working at home may not be so ideal.”

In this piece from Science Newsline, Golden adds this comment:

Whereas individuals may adopt telework as a means to enhance their quality of life and reduce exhaustion, those with low levels of conflict between work and family seem able to benefit more from telework than those individuals who have high levels of conflict between their work and home.”

Specific though they may be to teleworkers’ stress, exhaustion and family conflicts, Golden’s findings do help underscore — or, at the very least, suggest — a general retreat from the glory days of flexible work and home offices. In fact, this piece in Slate features a much-more-recent study, the 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute, showing that overall, there’s less support among U.S. employers today for a flexible-work culture than there was in 2008.

This certainly flies in the face of the rhetoric out there, that employers better brace for the telecommuting/flexible-work revolution.

On the contrary, based on a recent study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which I wrote about in this April 7 news analysis, it appears employers are hardly making strides to ready themselves for any such revolution, let alone ensure that their flexible work is even working. That study shows flexible arrangements aren’t being offered to most employees, and employers’ flexible-work options are too limited in scope and type to be effective.

As Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, told me then, “the take-home message here is ‘our work isn’t done.’ ”

Indeed.

 

 

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On the Flexible-Work Bandwagon

flex workCompanies that cut telecommuting options may grab the headlines, but it’s safe to say that most of the corporate world has gotten on board with the flexible work concept.

A 2013 WorldatWork survey of 566 organizations, for example, found 88 percent of employers offering some form of telework options to employees, with just 3 percent of companies canceling telework programs within the last two years.

A more recent study from SHRM and the Families and Work Institute seems to confirm the rise of flexible work, at least in terms of when and where employees get the job done. The same survey, however, also finds provisions that afford employees extended time away from work on the wane.

SHRM and FWI’s 2014 National Study of Employers polled 1,051 employers of varying sizes in an analysis of changes occurring in the workplace since 2008. The number of employers reporting they offer options such as occasional remote work was 67 percent in this year’s poll, compared to 50 percent who said they did the same in 2008.

Further, 92 percent of respondents said they permit at least some groups of workers to have control over when they have breaks, up from 84 percent in ’08. Eighty-one percent of employers reported they let workers periodically change their starting and quitting times within some range of hours, while 82 percent indicated they allow employees to take time off during the workday for important family and personal needs without loss of pay.

The survey finds employers becoming less flexible, however, with regard to options that involve employees spending significant time away from work. For example, the number of companies providing job-sharing situations dipped from 29 percent in 2008 to 18 percent today.

In addition, fewer firms offer sabbaticals now compared to four years ago (28 percent this year, versus 38 percent in 2008), with career breaks for family or personal responsibilities less common as well (52 percent today, versus 64 percent in 2008). Providing the 12 weeks of leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act remains the norm for most categories of employees.

“This study is a reflection of the changes occurring in our nation,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the New York-based Families and Work Institute and lead study author, in a statement. “More than just data on policies and paychecks, this research shows us how the personal and the professional are connected, and how business is reinventing workplaces for a continually changing workforce.”

With rapid technological and demographic shifts taking place, organizations must adapt, said Matos.

“Creating an effective and flexible workplace can help organizations meet the business needs of today and adjust to rapidly changing needs.”

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Looking to Employers for Pay-Gap Solutions

Plenty has been written about the pay gap between men and women in recent months.

188094090Indeed, as most of our readers know, the issue recently made news again when President Obama directed the Department of Labor to issue new rules requiring federal contractors to provide compensation data that includes a breakdown by race and gender.

In light of its ability to get much of anything through Congress these days, the Obama administration has lately been doing whatever it can through executive orders. But as a study released by Glassdoor earlier today suggests, it’s hardly the only interested party with a role to play.

Indeed, when Glassdoor recently surveyed 1,000 employees and job seekers, it found nearly six out of every 10 employees (57 percent) believe employers are in the best position to address pay gaps. This was followed by Congress (30 percent) and President Obama (14 percent).

Asked to specify how employers could make a difference, the respondents said:

  • New company policies around pay and comp (52 percent)
  • Clearer communication from senior leaders/HR about how raises are determined (45 percent)
  • Greater pay transparency (38 percent)
  • Government legislation (21 percent)
  • Employees threatening to leave and/or protests (17 percent)
  • New senior leaders (16 percent)

In many cases, the employees and job seekers indicated they’re looking to HR for clarification, with a fairly healthy portion of the respondents (43 percent) saying they believe the function is responsible for helping them understand how pay raises or cost-of-living increases are determined at their current employer.

Glassdoor’s career and workplace expert, Rusty Rueff, sees the findings as a wake-up call for employers …

Now is the time employers need to take a close look at their salary structure[s] and determine where pay gaps exist, then fix [them] so employees know exactly where they stand in terms of compensation within their organization.  When employees have a clearer understanding of how they’re being compensated without secrecy around salaries, not only can they feel empowered in their current jobs, they’re also often motivated to work toward the next level, which can improve productivity.”

Tied to that notion is the additional stat that more than one in three (36 percent) of the respondents do not believe they understand the process their employer uses to determine pay raises or cost-of-living increases.

As for how men versus women view their pay, more than 42 percent of women do not believe they received fair pay in their current jobs, compared to 34 percent of men. These numbers seem fairly consistent with other studies that have come before.

Glassdoor also asked respondents to check off workplace perks that would keep them satisfied, in those instances when employers might not be in a position to provide pay raises or cost-of-living increases. Here’s what it found they wanted:

  • 61 percent – more paid vacation days
  • 52 percent – more career opportunities
  • 50 percent – flexible work hours
  • 46 percent – option to work from home/remotely
  • 44 percent – company stock/shares
  • 34 percent – healthcare subsidy
  • 23 percent – gym membership
  • 21 percent – opportunities to work on new projects

I’m sure many of you won’t be too surprised to see what some of the top choices were.  I would imagine there are some similarities to what you’re seeing and hearing on your engagement and satisfaction surveys, assuming you’re regularly doing them. But that said, I figure it never hurts to see what the broader universe of employees and job seekers are saying matter most to them these days.

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What Does Today’s Teleworker Look Like?

teleworkThe answer found in a recent survey may not be what you expected.

In a national survey of 556 employed adults, Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit Inc. found 31 percent of respondents saying they do most of their work away from their employer’s offices.

No great shock there. The study also found, however, that 71 percent of teleworkers were men, which may come as a surprise to some. And that wasn’t the only finding that could startle those who picture the average teleworker as a busy mom trying to balance work responsibilities with the rigors of raising kids or a young millennial who eschews the confines of stuffy corporate offices.

To wit, the survey saw no significant statistical difference between the number of remote workers with kids and those without children. The poll also found no significant difference in the age groups of teleworkers.

Despite such findings, too many employers still “treat telework as a disposable option,” a la Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, said Cali Williams Yost, CEO of the Madison, N.J.-based Flex+Strategy Group, in a statement.

“Telework is not a perk, and it’s certainly not just for moms and Gen Y,” said Yost. “Rather, it’s an operational strategy. Think of it as anything less and organizations ignore what has become a vital part of their business and the way their people actually work.”

The study also includes some statistics that suggest cubicle life is taking a significant toll on employees back at HQ.

For example, on-site employees reported doing most of their work either in a private office (30 percent) or a cube or open office space (33 percent). In comparison to their remote and private office counterparts, this group reported having less work/life flexibility than they did at this time last year, the survey found.

In addition, remote workers were more likely to receive training to help them manage work/life flexibility, with 47 percent of this group saying they had undergone such training. Only 35 percent of those working primarily in cubes or open office spaces said the same.

Companies that still resist offering telework options to more employees “will be increasingly confronted with the limitations of open office plans and forced to accept that work/life flexibility is a solution to where, when and how employees can get their work done with greater focus and performance,” according to Yost.

“Whether they work remotely or together on-site, we need to help employees develop the critical skill set needed to manage their work/life fit, so they can successfully capture the best of collaborative and remote work environments.”

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Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Two different surveys showed up recently with some employment-related things to think about this Thanksgiving.

89319425-- thanksgivingThey’re not related … er, then again, maybe they are.

One, a new Thanksgiving survey from Chicago-based CareerBuilder, finds one in five workers (19 percent) plan to spend Thanksgiving this year with co-workers either in or outside the office. Most of them (14 percent) have to work the holiday.

Which brings us to the second poll from Menlo Park, Callif.-based OfficeTeam that finds 24 percent of workers are most thankful this holiday for — aside from salary — their friendly co-workers. (This was followed by a good benefits program, 20 percent; easy commute, 16 percent; challenging assignments, 15 percent, supportive manager, 11 percent; other, 9 percent; flexible hours, 3 percent; and don’t know/no answer, 1 percent. (Here is a report on the survey, and an infographic.)

So safe to say, if that many employees have to be working on our heaviest-travelled, family-focused national holiday, then at least it’s a consolation that they value the friendship and pleasantness of the employees alongside them in the same boat.

If you think about it, says Robert Hosking, executive direction of OfficeTeam, it makes a lot of sense that co-worker relationships are this important.

“Many full-time workers spend more than half of their waking hours at the office,” says Hosking, “so having friendly colleagues can make all the difference when it comes to job satisfaction.”

So what can HR leaders do with this information? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to encourage behaviors and nurture environments that allow employees to do more of what OfficeTeam recommends they do to increase workplace happiness: socialize with co-workers, step away from the desk, explore flexible-scheduling options, take advantage of perks, and set goals and meet them.

Who knows, with enough focus on the above, maybe “friendly employers” will top next year’s gratitude list.

 

 

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The Steep Cost of Long Hours

200212196-001By now you’ve surely heard the story of Moritz Erhardt.

On Aug. 15, the 21-year-old Bank of America intern was found dead in a shower cubicle at a student residential facility, after reportedly working for 72 straight hours at B of A Merrill Lynch’s investment banking division in London.

In the days since, many questions have been raised surrounding the work culture of the fast-paced financial sector, where employees—particularly junior-level associates—may feel compelled to keep punishing work schedules in hopes of securing their spot in a very competitive and profitable industry.

Bank of America is raising some questions of its own, recently announcing it had commissioned a “formal senior working group” to examine the organization’s working practices, with “a special focus on junior members of staff,” according to The Guardian.

Erhardt’s passing is certainly an extreme example, but the financial services realm is far from the only place where employees are working themselves ragged, sometimes to the point of putting their own physical and mental well-being at risk.

So, where’s the threshold? What’s the right amount of work? In a recent study, a Kansas State University researcher attempted to answer such questions. And, if her findings are any indication, the sweet spot may be in the 40-to-45 hours-per-week range.

Sarah Asebedo, a doctoral student at K-State, analyzed the association between “workaholism” and physical and mental health. Asebedo found that employees working more than 50 hours a week were more likely to experience diminished mental health—as measured by self-reported depression scores—and reduced physical well-being.

On the other hand, another study suggests spending less time at the office may not do all that much for employees.

Robert Rudolf, an assistant professor of economics at Korea University in Seoul, recently used data from an annual survey of 5,000 Korean households to analyze overall job and life satisfaction before and after changes in South Korean labor regulations reduced the workweek to five days and 40 hours a week. (Prior to 2004, employees in South Korea put in six-day, 44-hour weeks.)

According to the New York Times, Rudolf used a five-point scale—ranging from “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied”—to determine workers’ happiness with their jobs and home lives. He found a reduction in hours had no bearing on either job or life satisfaction for employees of both sexes.

So, it seems there is no magic number of hours that will keep your workforce at its happiest and healthiest. But, a degree of flexibility may be the best option employers can offer, says Rudolf.

“I am a big fan of flexible working solutions with flex-time, part-time options, etc.,” he told the Times. “In my opinion, higher personal freedom about their work flanked with well-designed performance targets will make workers both happier and more productive.”

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