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BUSINESS

9 MIN

Punch the Clock! It’s Time to End Our Ideas About the Standard Work Week

Want you and your company to get better at your jobs? Consider freeing yourselves from your desks and focusing on results, not ‘putting in the hours’

Slavish devotion to putting in the standard 40 hours (at least) at the office is essentially pointless, as it must have occurred to anyone who has internet service at home, and a hard surface suitable for a laptop.

Sure, it makes sense for white collar workers to have an office of some sort, where they can do essential officey job things (including talking about the weather and celebrating milestones with below-average cake).

But situations come up where working a different set of hours from the rest of the team would improve one’s life. Shifting the work day earlier so it’s easier to pick up the kid, for example. Wouldn’t it be just wonderful to be trusted to figure out your own ideal timetable? Is not a grownup employee the most qualified person to figure out her own needs, and balance them against those of her job?

What if everyone just trusted you to take a yoga class in the middle of the day and still be just as productive in the long run? (And maybe more so …)

Well, there’s good news, cubicle warriors! Toss those Lululemons into your bring-to-work bag, because business leaders and workplace experts are embracing what they’re calling the “results-only work environment,” where – at least according to the ideal – work schedules simply don't exist, meetings are minimized, and no one is supposed to use peer pressure to make you feel chained to your desk. (All of which may be especially welcome for those who need to travel often for work.) And all of this freedom is meant to make you more productive, not less.

“We’re judging people on the wrong thing. The clock is just a clock.”

As Jody Thompson, a former Best Buy executive who consults with companies about how to change their work culture, says, her approach is about focusing on real accomplishments using metrics that are more meaningful than “total hours worked.”

In their 2008 book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, Thompson and Cali Ressler, her co-author and business partner, share a management philosophy that revolves around practices they developed while working as executives at Best Buy. When they went off on their own, they coined the term “results-only work environment” (and indeed trademarked it and tried to popularize the acronym ROWE).

Thompson says under the ROWE approach, employees become “100% accountable to the work, and 100% autonomous, meaning they’re self-governing.”

“It’s about letting go of things that don’t matter, and everybody getting crystal clear about measurable results.”

Otherwise, she says, “We’re judging people on the wrong thing. The clock is just a clock.”

The downside of the rigid work week

As Ilya Pozin, founder of Pluto TV, argued in a viral LinkedIn post, the 9-to-5 work week is a relic, as outdated and irrelevant to the 21st-century economy as memo pads and steno pools. He called it “a fossil from an era when the number of hours an employee clocked on a production line was a simplified measurement of productivity.”

Harvard Business School lecturer Robert C. Pozen tackled the subject in the Harvard Business Review: “Hourly wages and the classic 40-hour work week have trained us to measure our [labour] by the number of hours we log. However, this mindset is dead wrong when applied to today’s professionals. The value of lawyers, consultants, and analysts isn’t the time they spend, but the value they create through their knowledge.”

“Simply having someone cheeks-in-the-seat doesn't mean anything."

So why do we remain so bound to our desks? Technology has the potential to liberate us from the need to head to the office – and in many workplaces, it already has – but other workers feel chained to the cubicle for reasons you could call cultural or sociological: We go and sit in a special designated place and work in front of others so they can see us working, and we can see them. Consciously or not, your colleagues judge your commitment and other positive work traits in part by how much time they can physically see you in the office (PDF link).

Even “passive face time” – that is, time when not you’re actually interacting with anyone (or even necessarily working at all), but you are physically present – counts toward your perceived merit. Meanwhile, those who aren’t present in the office can seem like less committed members of the team, and could miss out on promotions – even if they’re taking advantage of officially mandated flex time arrangements.

Annie Perrin of The Energy Project, a New York-based workplace culture consultancy (whose CEO, incidentally, is that guy who regrets ghostwriting Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal), tries to persuade clients that pressuring employees to sit at their desks during certain hours won’t encourage them to do their best.

“Simply having someone cheeks-in-the-seat, as we like to say, doesn't mean anything other than that they're there,” Perrin says. “They could be sitting in their desks … and not really be adding much value at all.”

Even worse, many workplaces subtly force employees to compete to see who can be present for the most hours. “Being the first one in the parking lot and the last one to go, and wearing that like a badge of honour” is a familiar office scenario, Perrin says, but it “is not necessarily driving great results.”

Shutterstock

'Putting in the hours' can be terribly unhealthy – and unproductive to boot

There’s also mounting evidence to suggest the culture of making sure everyone sees how much you work is counterproductive: It goads us into toiling past the point of peak performance and into the realm of “presenteeism” – where we’re physically at work, but too sick or tired to actually do work. Beyond that lies burnout, which is not only really unproductive, but downright dangerous.  

Says Perrin: “We know that working long hours continuously, there's a clear point of diminishing returns.”

The upside of freedom

According to proponents, an unshackled workforce could be more productive and is almost certainly happier and less prone to burnout. Ressler and Thompson say – with some evidence to back it up – that the benefits of their ROWE management philosophy, include high levels of employee engagement, low attrition rates and increased productivity.

RippleIT (with offices in Austin, Atlanta and New York) reported that after it adopted the ROWE philosophy, “anarchy did not reign, the sky didn’t fall” and non-performers could no longer mask their non-performance by just showing up every day. Kansas-based Suntell told the Huffington Post it has experienced a 20% increase in sales with a 20% smaller workforce.

Flexibility on office hours tends to mean people will choose to work from home, which brings a multitude of benefits to employers, including lower overhead (especially office/real estate costs), higher retention rates, fewer sick days.

More important, from your boss’s point of view: Freedom to roam might even get your creative juices unstuck – who hasn’t had the experience of reaching a eureka moment after stepping away from the desk?

"People feel liberated, like they get their dignity back."

Perrin says a valued and trusted employee is a happier employee, and being trusted to manage their own time means they’ll look after themselves better.

Here’s how that works: Imagine the harried parent who rushes to sit at his cubicle by 9 a.m. on the dot despite whatever might come up in the morning. Who really thinks he’ll be relaxed, focused and creative at 9:01?

Perrin contrasts this scenario with that of the parent who feels encouraged to go for a run in the morning, have breakfast at a reasonable pace, and come into the office in a rested state. “They come in, they’re [mentally in the game], ready to go, because they’ve taken care of their needs.” 

Once the culture of a workplace changes, Thompson says, “people feel liberated, and feel like they get their dignity back.” And every day feels like a (productive) Saturday.

Time to change? Here’s how

If this sounds promising to you, it might be time to suggest your workplace go beyond mere flex-time and remote working arrangements to become a radically, systemically schedule-free environment. It’s a fundamental change that requires commitment to a whole new philosophy around time. It won’t be right for every company – some have already tried and abandoned versions of a schedule-free regime. And it won’t work for every employee, because not everyone brings the same discipline to the table.

But the potential upsides are spectacular: You can finish your report and catch the Spider-Man matinée. Here’s some advice from the experts on how to proceed.

1. Focus on results, not time

Pretty much everyone who discusses the question of why old-fashioned office hours persist comes up against the fact that the 40-hour week creates an easy metric for managers to track – “Is Employee X at his desk? (Yes/No).” Yet it’s hardly a sophisticated measure of effectiveness.

The more challenging (but more insightful) approach is to set up systems to gauge performance in more meaningful terms – to track actual productivity, in other words, as opposed to just how much time Employee X spends lounging in his designated fattening pen.

In a ROWE workplace, Thompson says, one’s manager “doesn't manage my time. They manage my work with me. It’s like a results coach.”

Thompson and Ressler’s vision of the ideal work week might include some noon yoga classes here and there, but where there’s give, there must also be take. Their first book includes a scenario in which an employee jumps out of bed at 5 a.m. to tackle a flash of inspiration before it slips away. That might sound ideal for a morning person, but a nightmare to anyone else.

Meanwhile, for employers who might worry that their teams will slack off if given more freedom, it might sometimes be true – see point no. 4, below. However, you’re more likely to have the opposite problem. If anything, you may have to discourage people from working so hard: When left to their own devices, employees often become what are called “work martyrs,” pushing themselves beyond peak efficiency – which, again, is an argument in favour of a system that encourages people to take time away from work when they need it.

2. Changing the workplace requires a dedicated plan

The whole results-only thing may sound sensible, but liberating ourselves from the cult of face-time can be more challenging than simply dropping the habit cold turkey. The North American drive to put in the regular office hours – and then watch everyone else to make sure they’re doing it, too – is deeply ingrained in our workplace culture.

In a 2014 paper, a Harvard Business School professor and a University of Minnesota sociologist suggested the overhaul has to be radical in order to really stick. They studied Ressler and Thompson’s ROWE model as well as another workplace redesign program called Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication (PTO) and found that both showed “measurable and sustainable effect on both work effectiveness and employees’ lives.”

(The PTO approach, developed by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow using The Boston Consulting Group as guinea pigs, could be regarded as a less radical program than ROWE for giving employees control over time management. A PTO workplace acknowledges that extra hours may be required, but it at least tries to make those hours predictable. A team gets together at the beginning of a project to discuss the realistic time requirements, while setting a plan for when everyone is – and is not – going to work on it. Firm boundaries on communication give employees peace of mind, knowing they will be left alone during certain time windows, especially planned days off.)

The Harvard and University of Minnesota researchers – one of whom was Perlow herself – also found that these structured approaches are more effective than informal “flexible work hours” arrangements when it comes to cementing a new (and potentially more profitable) way of working. The trouble with ad hoc flex time arrangements is that many employees don’t feel empowered or entitled to actually use them – or it’s mainly mothers who do take advantage, and can be stigmatized for it.

In short, unless a dedicated effort by management makes it absolutely clear that no one is to be penalized for working remotely and/or during non-standard hours, people will fear it could be career-limiting. And they won’t reap the benefits of actually customizing their own schedules.

3. Change your thinking; get rid of ‘sludge’

Many of us may agree that whether work is done during office hours is less important than making sure it gets done in the first place. However, translating that insight into practice involves the hard work of breaking down old mental habits deriving from centuries of hierarchical time surveillance.

As Thompson and Ressler explain in Why Work Sucks, exercising freedom over one’s time can feel like a transgression, even when it’s explicitly permitted. In order to make a workplace compatible with a time-agnostic system, they ban “sludge” – that’s what they call cutting remarks directed at people who seem to be working fewer hours than others, or appear to be strolling in late. You know, that person in the office who verbalizes things like: “It must be nice to be able to come in at 9:30.”

Shutterstock

Here's Mr. Sludgey-pants, about to sludge you

In the world of a ROWE, employees can come and go as they please and don’t owe an explanation to anyone. No one is even supposed to talk about the hours they’ve worked. (Ressler and Thompson dedicate a significant chunk of their book to verbal strategies for combating sludge, an acknowledgement of how tough it is to scrape off.)

In order to change the workplace, then, we have to recognize that friends and colleagues deserve the benefit of the doubt about how much effort they're putting in, and we must extend the same trust and understanding to ourselves. Ressler and Thompson call this part of their program a “sludge eradication strategy.”

Thompson says the real change is mental. “It’s kind of a rewiring of your brain.”

4. Accept that not everyone can go schedule-free

Some companies have tried the strategy, and discovered its limits; managers must give careful thought before banishing the almighty clock.

For one, not everyone has the discipline to work remotely or from home; this Harvard Business Review piece talks about a case study at Chinese travel website Ctrip, in which the easily distracted employees were meant to recognize their inability to be productive at home and chain themselves to the office accordingly.

Simple face-to-face interaction has inherent value, meanwhile, and even self-described millennials, who are known for their preference for flexible work environments, are making “the case for old-fashioned office culture” because of that. As Quartz’s deputy ideas editor Meredith Bennett-Smith explained, what she’s looking for in a workplace is “an atmosphere that is intellectually stimulating [and] collaborative … And that’s hard to get when your coworkers are scattered to the winds.”

As Sarah Kessler recently reported in Quartz, IBM – a pioneer in remote working since the 1980s – has decided to “co-locate” thousands of employees; in other words, it’s telling them to report to an office again. (Or quit.) The reason? Kessler presents evidence that whereas employees who work remotely may be more productive as individuals, people who mingle regularly can be more innovative as a group. (Observers have called this paradox the “water cooler effect.”) In other words there may be a tradeoff between productivity and idea generation – and it’s arguable that IBM needs innovation more badly right now. Other companies may feel the same.

Even Best Buy, where Ressler and Thompson pioneered their ROWE approach, abandoned it in 2013 when a new, less supportive CEO came along and evidently decided it sent the wrong signal. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, CEO Hubert Joly justified the decision: “A leader has to pick the right style of leadership for each employee, and it is not one-size-fits-all.” Which suggests that time flexibility may itself have to be a flexible concept in order to work.

Joly’s ditching of ROWE, though mourned by the Harvard Business Review as short-sighted, could be a sign that the workplace isn’t ready for radical time freedom … yet.

Hey, don’t sludge it. It’ll arrive when – and if – it’s ready.

Published Monday, April 3rd 2017

Header image credit: Shutterstock

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