A study by Fleet Financial Group and the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute at Harvard University concluded that paying attention to quality- of-life issues can boost productivity.

A four-month, 75-employee experiment was started last summer at two operating centers of the $84 billion-asset Boston bank. Workflows were reorganized, some employees were permitted to telecommute, and working hours were made flexible.

Productivity improved along with morale, the study found. Participating employees reviewed and approved more loans and met or beat deadlines.

When computers went down one day at a Providence, R.I., work site, the telecommuters were able to fill in, salvaging work time that could have been lost, said Anne Szostak, a Fleet executive vice president and director of corporate human resources.

Paula M. Rayman, author of the study and head of the Radcliffe institute, said the results have implications for many banks undergoing institutional changes. "Bankers haven't been leaders in creating family- friendly work environments," she said.

The experiment was conducted just as Fleet was emerging from 18 months of absorbing Hartford, Conn.-based Shawmut National Corp. and National Westminster's U.S. retail unit. Fleet bought Shawmut in 1995 and the New Jersey-based Natwest unit in 1996.

Fleet's feverish efforts to integrate those operations meant long hours and extra pressure for employees, Ms. Rayman said. A push for productivity to complete the mergers translated into poor morale.

Ms. Rayman, an economist, said many banks are grappling with the same sort of problem. "There has been this sense that if one focused on increasing productivity, that was a disincentive to improve quality of life," she said. "CEOs of banks think it's an either-or proposition. I wanted to show that it can be a win-win equation."

Most notable was the evidence of stress reduction at Fleet, Ms. Rayman said. At the beginning of the experiment, four-fifths of the 75 participants said they were suffering sleep disturbances related to job stress. Fleet gave them more control over their hours and workflow; after four months, reported sleep disruption fell 35%.

Less stress and more rest translated into fewer mistakes and increased productivity, the study concluded.

Fleet, which invested $140,000 in the effort, plans to repeat it at four other sites this year. The pilot sites were in Framingham, Mass., in the offices of Fleet's small-business lending unit; and in Providence, at those of the portfolio management unit. Forty loan underwriters participated at Framingham, and 35 portfolio managers in Providence.

The program examined employee grievances: long commutes, administrative tasks that distracted from primary duties, and inconsistent communication with other units. Employees were allowed to telecommute or devise flexible work hours. Administrative tasks were reassigned to other personnel to free up underwriters. The process of assigning work was changed.

The result was less workplace "frenzy," the report said. Employees reported that they could do their jobs in fewer hours and with less stress.

Other banks, including BankBoston Corp. and J.P. Morgan & Co., have asked about the program, Ms. Rayman said. It could become an industry trend, she said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.