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Written by: Alex Andrews
It’s 5:30 AM on a dark and cold January morning. I’m tiptoeing around my home, trying not to wake my three sleeping children, or my wife who was up twice last night with our one year-old. I have an early morning meeting, so I need to leave before traffic picks up. I make my way down the stairs, grab a quick breakfast and just as I walk up to the door, I hear my oldest daughter, who is standing at the top of the stairs, quietly say, “Daddy, can you stay home today?”
Unfortunately this heart wrenching moment has happened far too often and as any working parent has experienced, there is an overwhelming feeling of guilt that comes over you when you have to decide on putting work before family. This is why work sucks.
Now, before I offend someone by saying “work sucks”, especially my boss, let me explain where this came from. At the turn of the 18th century, in the middle of the industrial revolution, companies began maximizing the output of their factories and subsequently, it was vital that they increase production running time to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Consequently, to achieve this level of efficiency, employees, including woman and children, began working long 10-16 hour shifts1.
The idea of shorter workdays originated in Britain by a British socialist and factory owner, Robert Owen. Owen observed the abysmal working conditions, saw the decline in health, welfare and morale and began a movement to change this. He later coined the slogan “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”1. However, it wasn’t until nearly a century later in 1914 that Henry Ford implemented the eight-hour work-day, and here we are a century after that, many of us still following the same philosophy. But is this the best use of our time? Are we the most productive under this regimen? What is the next step in the workplace evolution?
Up until a year ago, I didn’t really think much of this, my typical eight-hour day was the norm. Then, one day, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of a book he said is his company’s modus operandi, it is titled “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.” The authors, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, attempt to engender a system based on the principles of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), which challenges the traditional perception of the eight-hour work day and that time in a chair, plus physical presence in the office, is the only formula to maximize productivity. A ROWE, however, supports the notion that businesses can truly succeed by granting workers complete autonomy in turn for complete accountability – managing only the results.
Here is how Ressler and Thompson define a ROWE: “Each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done."
Sound too good to be true, right? For the cubical dweller, it may seem absurd. However, the more I read the book, the more I realized how revolutionary this concept is. It is up there with Owen and Ford. This idea is the next logical step in the evolution of the workplace, but how do you get there?
Eradicate the “Sludge”
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious hurdle to becoming a true ROWE, is that of trust. More than the trust of a manager to the employee, but the trust among peers. This is what Ressler and Thompson call "sludge."
Sludge is being overly critical of colleagues when it appears they show up late often, are leaving early for family commitments, or it is perceived they are just simply not putting in enough time at work. This fosters suspicion and damages your ability to trust the other individual to do their part.
Recognizing sludge and eradicating it is essential to the success of a ROWE. However, reducing sludge at the management level is paramount. Especially, the authors state, managers must let go of their parent-like instincts. "The hardest thing to get into supervisors' skulls is that their people can actually be trusted to do what they're supposed to do like adults," said Thompson. "Everything about ROWE is you have to trust people. Managers are all about controlling and monitoring. And the second you say, 'Let people do whatever they want whenever they want,' instantly you can see how mistrustful the culture is."
No More Clock Watching
The foundation of a ROWE is that must completely remove time from the equation. Watching the clock and focusing on time in a seat is its antithesis. Employees must have the freedom to use their time as they see fit, concentrating on their assigned responsibilities when it works best for them, giving them control over their work and personal life. Allowing someone to take time off as flex time is “a joke" the authors state, but rather, the employee is given the freedom to deal with personal and professional matters in a way each individual sees fit.
During traditional working hours, employees control their time, whether that’s going fishing, jogging, volunteering at your kid’s school or favorite charity, even attending that late afternoon yoga class. The authors are clear that work is something you do, not someplace you go, and work output always overrides time input.
We’re all Adults
In the end, we are all adults and being treated like one is the central focus of Ressler and Thompson’s brainchild. After all, people need to feel trusted, and once they are, performance almost always goes up. In the end, the best person to know how to do their job, is the person doing that job.
That all said, please do not misunderstand, this type of flexible results oriented working environment, with all its benefits is not without problems. Perhaps the biggest critique is that a ROWE workplace is not a one size fits all program. Flex time may work for most office based employees, but service oriented and customer facing jobs, for example, will most certainly not work.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says “there isn’t a situation that is perfect with every organization, but we have to get past the orthodoxy that the only way to get work done is to be physically present in a place called the office.”
The moment someone feels a colleague is receiving special treatment or not doing their share, camaraderie will deteriorate. For a company truly to thrive, every member of the family must understand and buy in to the rules.
1 - International Socialist Review, Vol. XII, No. 2. August 1911