BIU trial featured in the Harvard Business Review

17 November 2017Cindy Wiryakusuma and Hui Chai

Categorybehaviour change

Tagsbehaviour change, case study, harvard, news

A BIU trial about flexible work was recently featured in the Harvard Business Review.

flexible work

The article, How we nudged employees to embrace flexible work, aimed at business leaders, encourages a deeper assessment of whether flexible work policies are actually being used by individuals in their organisations and offers our experience in overcoming barriers to adoption.

Our work was part of a trial that we ran in partnership with the Transport for NSW (TfNSW) Travel Choices program, which aims to shift Sydney CBD commuter behaviour. It is part of a suite of measures by Transport for NSW’s Sydney Coordination Office that uses behaviour change approaches to increase travelling outside the busiest times on the road and public transport networks, and to increase travelling by active and public transport.

We found during fieldwork that many leading organisations have introduced workplace policies to enable flexible work, recognising the benefits of these in terms of staff retention, morale, commitment, diversity, recruitment and being an employer of choice. Paradoxically, despite employee demand, it has proved harder to get individual staff members to actually take up those policies.

To address this apparent paradox, we used behavioural economics to try and nudge people to behave a little differently and shift the norms and unwritten rules of workplaces.

We looked at existing research, analysed transport and workplace turnstile data, and conducted qualitative fieldwork with eight major organisations employing well over 1000 staff that commuted to work in central Sydney. Our analysis showed that there were three important behavioural barriers to employees taking up flexible work:

1. Social norms

Organisational culture is often resistant to change, so even after the introduction of a flexible work policy like allowing staff to arrive and depart within ‘broadband’ hours (e.g. 7am-7pm) there can still be a strong ‘9-5’ culture. Expressions of this include the raised eyebrows and half-joking comments made by peers when a staff member leaves the office earlier.

2. Staff perceptions of managers’ acceptance

Employees report that they are worried about being negatively judged by their managers if they ask for flexible hours, despite most managers saying they would view it positively. Employee views are reinforced by the example set by managers, many of whom do not themselves work flexibly. As neither employee nor manager raises the issue, they persist in their mutual ignorance of each other’s views. For example, “my manager says it is okay to go home before 5pm, but he never does it himself, so no one in the team does”, and “my staff have to build up courage to talk about flexible work arrangements with me”.

3. Individual lifestyles and habits

Commuting is known to be one of the ‘stickiest’, most resilient habits that we have. Further, employee lifestyles and non-work commitments, such as the school run, caring or going to the gym, are significant drivers of when people arrive and depart work.

Drawing on these findings, we wanted to see if behavioural economics could be used to encourage people to work more flexibly, especially to commute outside of peak hours. This would have the added benefit of reducing pressure on the transport system.

We worked within the BIU’s own department, the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) to try out three interventions. This was because DPC, like other major employers in NSW private and public sectors, recognises the many benefits that can result from staff working flexibly and had made a concerted effort throughout 2016 to work with leaders to encourage more people to work flexibly. We recognise this is a feature of DPC, so any organisations who are inspired to try to use behavioural economics to improve workplace flexibility should ensure you are measuring your organisation’s own unique baseline of behaviour.

The three interventions were intended to influence social norms, adjust manager behaviour and encourage people to try out new commuting approaches where they could.

Intervention 1: changing default settings in Microsoft Outlook calendars

Screenshot of a Microsoft Outlook calendar, showing how active hours were reduced to reflect only compulsory hours that staff have to be in the office.

Outlook defaults to highlighting 9am-5pm as the time people are available for meetings. To subtly nudge people to avoid early and late meetings, and so enable flexible start and finish times, we condensed the default available time shown in Outlook. 

Intervention 2: prompting managers to discuss and model flexible working

Secondly, we used building entry card data to show managers that their teams were mimicking their starting and leaving behaviour. We encouraged them to both model flexible working and have an open conversation with their teams about how it could work for them.

Intervention 3: using a competition to disrupt habits

Many workplaces have a healthy degree of inter-team rivalry, so we ran a team-based competition. Teams could win points for arriving or leaving out of peak times as well as for often-devalued forms of flexible working, such as part-time work or working from home. Regular leaderboards and a prize for the most flexible team encouraged participation.

We tested these interventions as part of a quasi-experimental trial to see if the interventions genuinely had an effect.

Column graphs showing percentages of off-peak entry times, before (38.9 per cent) and after (42.2 per cent) interventions 1 & 2
Figure 2:  Percentages of off-peak entry times, before and after interventions 1 and 2.

Following the calendar change and manager prompting (interventions 1 and 2), there was a 3.3 percentage point increase in the number of off-peak arrivals.  The interventions had no impact on off-peak departures.

Following this, we ran the competition (intervention 3) for nine weeks: hopefully, enough time for people to disrupt old habits and form new ones. Figure 3 shows that the competition resulted in a 6.4% increase in the number of off-peak arrivals, and a 4.9 % increase in the number of off-peak departures.

Percentages of off-peak entry and exit times before and after the competition

Figure 3. Percentages of off-peak entry and exit times before and after the competition (intervention 3).

Even two months after all interventions had finished, there was still a 7.1 percentage point increase in off-peak arrivals and a 3.8 percentage point increase in off-peak departures as compared to the time when none of these interventions were in place (baseline). , This shows that not only did behaviour shift during the competition, but those new behaviours were sustained.  This result reinforces the role that promoting flexible work policies can play to help manage transport demand and provides additional tools to be rolled out through the Travel Choices network of Sydney CBD organisations.

Distribution of entry and exit times before and two months after the trial ended (follow up)

Figure 4: Distribution of entry and exit times before and two months after the trial ended (follow up) 

This trial has shown that even low-cost behavioural interventions can result in real shifts in workplace norms and culture. Using behavioural insights, and methodologies borrowed from behavioural sciences, organisations can test out simple behavioural tools to find what works for you.

We are looking to replicate these interventions with private sector and public sector organisations, so if you are interested in testing to see what works in your own organisation, please let us know.

Read the Business Harvard Review article

We wish to acknowledge the efforts of past team members who contributed at various stages to this trial: Sean, Edwina and Shabnam; as well as support from Karen and Alex of the Behavioural Insights Team. We also wish to acknowledge the support of the DPC Senior Leadership including Secretary Blair Comley, and the broader project team: Brooke, Nicki and Teresa from People & Culture; Romell, Zihni and Micah from Security; Davi, James and Anthony from IT; and Marg, Susie, Ayushe, Helen, and Graham from TfNSW.