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Book review: Why work sucks (and fixing it with a ROWE)

Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It

By Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

The Penguin Group

$26.50

Meet Bachelor Bob and Single Mom Sally.

Bob's always the first to arrive and the last to leave the office. And in between, Bob does pretty much nothing at all. Bob's made a career out of going to meetings, sending e-mails and sitting for hours at his desk to get five minutes of face time with his boss.

Sally's always the last to arrive and the first to leave work. Sitting in her office for hours on end makes Sally squirrelly. Once her kids are asleep for the night, Sally fires up her laptop, camps out on the living room couch and does more work in four hours than Bob manages in a whole week.

So if Bob and Sally worked for you, who'd get the recognition and rewards? And who'd get the reprimand?

If Bob gets promoted and Sally gets sent to HR, your organization's bought the myth that time plus physical presence equals results. You believe that people who work long hours get more done than people who work fewer hours. People who are in their cubicles and offices are doing real work and people who aren't physically available all the time aren't really working. And people who get their work done in less time should get more work to fill out their eight-hour days.

None of this makes any sense to authors, CultureRx founders and former Best Buy employees Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.

"In an information and service economy it doesn't make sense to use time as a measurement for a job well-done," say the authors, who argue that knowledge work requires fluidity, concentration and creativity.

"What does 40 hours even mean? And what does 40 hours get you? If you are adding value to the company, if you are performing, then who cares if it takes you 40 hours or 40 seconds to do it?"

Organizations that subscribe to the time plus physical presence equals results myth sling a lot of sludge at employees. Everyone's judging each other on how they use time. Show up 15 minutes late and the boss points out the work day starts at 8:30 a.m. so the day will end at 5:15 p.m. Join a meeting halfway through and folks say "nice of you to join us". Take a vacation and a colleague says "must be nice, I haven't taken a holiday all year". Leave early to watch your daughter's track meet and coworkers say "Boy, I wish I had your hours."

Ressler and Thompson call this negative commentary sludge. "When we judge people — when we sludge them — we are expressing outdated attitudes about time and about what work looks like and how it gets done. We judge to make a point that someone else is different. We judge to make ourselves look better, to show other people (and ourselves) that we're the hardest working, we're the most dedicated. Most of all, we judge them to reinforce those unspoken beliefs about work. It's a vicious cycle."

The trouble with sludge is that it kills productivity and wrecks employee engagement. That 10-second quip about 8:30 a.m. start times and attendance policies leave employees worried or fuming all day. And if they're running late in the future, will they risk showing up with a made-up excuse or just call in sick? "Nothing stifles creativity and innovation like resentment," say the authors.

While working at Best Buy, Ressler was tapped to join the company's employer of choice committee and Thompson joined Ressler on an alternative work program. Together, they created the sludge-free Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). It's an approach to work that's built on a few assumptions. We're adults and not children. We're trustworthy. We flourish with freedom and choke up when controlled. And we're smart enough to figure out to get the job done.

In a ROWE, everyone's free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. People get paid for doing a chunk of value-added work instead of a chunk of time that may add little or nothing to the bottom line.

"We're not advocating that people do less work," say the authors. "If you have five projects, you're still going to have five projects. What we're advocating is that all of us, both employer and employee, acknowledge that people's demands are getting higher and higher, and since you can't make those demands go away, then we absolutely must give everyone more control over how they meet those demands."

In rolling out a ROWE at Best Buy's corporate headquarters, Ressler and Thompson came up with 13 culture-changing guideposts. They challenged coworkers to imagine what life would be like if people at all levels stopped doing anything that wasted their time, the customer's time or the company's time. If everyone had the freedom to work any way and anytime they wanted. If every day felt like Saturday in terms of control over their schedules. If people had an unlimited amount of paid time off so long as the work got done. If work wasn't a place you went to but rather something you did. If arriving at work at 2 p.m. was not considered coming in late. And leaving the workplace at 2 p.m. was not considered leaving early. If nobody talked about how many hours they worked. If every meeting was optional and everyone had the power to question the value of getting together. If there were no work schedules or shared calendars. If nobody felt guilty, overworked or stressed out. If there weren't any last-minute fire drills, drive-bys, fake crises and false urgencies demanding immediate attention. And if there were no judgments about how you spent your time.

So what happened at Best Buy? Productivity went up, voluntary turnover went down and involuntary turnover went up as poor performers who didn't deliver results left to pursue other opportunities. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, University of Minnesota sociologists are now tracking the long-term effects of a ROWE on employee health, well-being, engagement and productivity.

"A ROWE can turn a business's world upside down," say the authors who do a convincing job of responding to the "yeah, but" arguments against giving employees total control over how they do their work and get results. "But mostly it's the bad stuff that gets turned upside down.

The good aspects of work — that people want to make an impact, that they want to grow personally and professionally, that they want to make money and be passionate about what they do — none of that changes."

Creating a ROWE takes time and it's sure to elevate the blood pressure of command and control managers and strike fear in staff who haven't done any real work for years. But rethinking the outdated equation that time plus physical presence equals results is a good place to start if you want to unlock and unleash the productivity, creativity and innovation of your top performers.

(Published Oct. 4 in the Hamilton Spectator).

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