Encouraging managers to support flexible working

17 December 2019

In our latest randomised controlled trial we showed that behaviourally-informed messaging is effective in prompting managers to engage with their staff about flexible work.

Increasing access to flexible work is a NSW government priority. We know it is linked to improved productivity, engagement and supports workplace diversity. Across the government sector, employee satisfaction on flexible work has plateaued so we set out to find ways to improve it.

What did we do?  

Our research showed middle managers are a key dependency in employees perceptions of their access to flexible working. We partnered with the NSW Public Service Commission and other agencies to develop an email intervention aimed at encouraging managers to engage with their staff about flexible working. Our partners included the Department of Customer Service, Department of Education, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Department of Transport and Local Land Services.  

We ran a randomised controlled trial with two conditions. The control email used standardised messaging. The behaviourally-informed email drew on a range of BI principles such as social influence and salience, and also reduced friction by providing a template email for managers to send to their staff. 

What did we learn?   

Our analysis showed that managers who received the BI email were three times more likely to send an email to their team inviting a discussion about flexible work. 6.1% of managers in the treatment group sent the email compared to 1.8% in the control group. This was a significant effect, but the low proportion of managers engaging overall highlights the limitations of agencies using email as a tool to trigger action.  

Our key take-away is that if you’re going to send an email asking managers (or any busy person!) to do something make sure you use behavioural insights techniques – but don’t rely on email alone as your primary tool to drive behaviour change. That’s why the NSW Public Service Commission and our partner agencies use emails as only one component of their broader strategy to implement flexible work across the NSW government sector.  

The BIU has also designed and tested other novel solutions to improve flexible work practices – such as changing default settings in outlook, encouraging our managers to become flex work ambassadors and running a team-based competition. You can read more about that work here.