What do work-family conflict, working from home, and Lean have in common? When I was studying Industrial/Organizational Psychology with an emphasis in Occupational Health and Safety years ago, I would have said “Not much!” However, the combination of topics came up at our Lean Portland April 5th happy hour discussing working from home, and I began to see a connection.

Some quick background: We know from Work-Family Conflict research that stress from this conflict can contribute to burnout, job dissatisfaction, negative health consequences, reduced productivity, turnover, and other negative outcomes that negatively impact both the employee and can be expensive for organizations. One of the proven ways to combat the conflict workers experience for supervisors to provide support for these types of conflicts. Flexible scheduling and/or working from home is one of the methods supervisors can use to do this.

Working from home is far more common that it was pre-pandemic. I keep reading news stories about the Great Resignation, people leaving jobs because the company was forcing them to return to the office after working from home, and some truly terrible productivity measures to “keep tabs” on remote workers (# of mouse clicks per hour? How is that a measure of productivity!?!). I think we need to think differently about productivity in this new world.

If we know that supporting flexible work schedules reduces work-family conflict, and we know that remote work can mean greater flexibility over how and when work is done, then how do we allow greater freedom to employees while maintaining (or increasing) productivity?

Let’s remember a key tenant of Lean – focus on value to the customer. Any activities in work processes that do not contribute directly to value to the customer (e.g. what they would pay for) is considered waste and should be reduced or eliminated (with the exception of necessary activities that contribute to the value-added activities). Perhaps organizations are losing sight of what really matters – value to the customer – and emphasizing too much how and when employees actually do the work that is valuable to the customer. If Pat can do value-added work at 10pm to accommodate childcare needs, why the heck would you not allow that schedule and location flexibility?

Of course, not all jobs are amenable to working from home or flexible scheduling. But, for those that are, organizations have an opportunity to engage Lean tools (e.g. process mapping or value-stream mapping, among others) and philosophies to better understand which activities actually contribute to value, and empower employees to do those activities on their own schedule. Such an approach could positively impact employee satisfaction and well-being, reduce likelihood of turnover, and positively impact the bottom line by focusing on the customer.

I call that a win-win.