Fast Company

To What Extent This Autonomy?

How much workplace flexibility can we handle?

I help run an organization that is almost entirely virtual. My partners and I live on opposite ends of the Bay Area, so we plan in-person staff meetings only once a week, in the middle of the day, so that one of my partners can pick up her son from school and so we all can avoid rush-hour traffic. Our employees work from home and call in regularly for staff meetings, and we have occasional in-person check-ins at local coffee shops. One of our team lives in Canada. Thank god for Skype.

We have a bricks and mortar office, or "meeting place" is more like it, but the time that it would take commuting to it on a daily basis is just not efficient. Just commuting to one meeting takes roughly 2.5 hours out of my work week--frankly I can't afford to give up more. I'm a huge proponent of face time; sometimes you simply have to do business in person. But with all the built-in hassles of gridlock, high gas prices, airport security, klugey wireless, and new carry-on requirements that force me to spend more time figuring out how to get my myriad toiletries into a teeny weeny baggie, travel just isn't that efficient anymore.

If you read the recent Business Week article on the new Best Buy program that allows employees full autonomy over their work schedules, you might get excited about the possibilities at your own organization. It seems that, finally, face time is becoming valued far more reasonably.

One afternoon last year, Chap Achen, who oversees online orders at Best Buy Co. (BBY ), shut down his computer, stood up from his desk, and announced that he was leaving for the day. It was around 2 p.m., and most of Achen's staff were slumped over their keyboards, deep in a post-lunch, LCD-lit trance. "See you tomorrow," said Achen. "I'm going to a matinee."

Back in the day--er, 2005--you'd have to quit to get this kind of autonomy. Back in 2001 many employees left their offices midday, but they had pink slips in their hands, and they weren't headed for the movie theater but the local bar.

According to the article,

The nation's leading electronics retailer has embarked on a radical--if risky--experiment to transform a culture once known for killer hours and herd-riding bosses. The endeavor, called ROWE, for "results-only work environment," seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours.

The idea of flex time isn't new: We've been griping for years about how we put in the hours, and we produce, so why shouldn't we get to leave the office when we want to? And women with children are quite familiar with it. But institutionalizing it across a major corporation? And not penalizing employees who take the company up on it? Now that's borderline madness; the kind of thing that you would see in kooky-granola small businesses like Patagonia.

The anal-retentive in me screams, how can you schedule onsite meetings in such chaos? But the free spirit in me wonders, do they need any full-time bloggers?

The movement toward developing the ROWE work environment was a gradual one. Employees of the older, Boomer-age persuasion were not all up for playing autonomously. They put in thousands of 8-to-6pm-or-later days and now some Gen Ys are going to get flex-time benefits? Apparently, not over their middle-managing, stress-addled bodies. The HR team responsible for developing this program in Best Buy did so in stealth mode initially, and early adopters didn't have frictionless transitions, nor do they now, but the program is gaining steam. BB cites a 35 percent increase in productivity and a drastic reduction in real estate costs.

On so many levels I say, way to go Best Buy. Jim Ware and Charlie Grantham, authors of one of my favorite workplace blogs The Future of Work, have been saying this all along: It's not about the real estate, people! They cite many practical reasons why allowing workers flexibility makes sense:

1. Reducing basic workforce support costs;

2. Increasing workforce productivity;

3. Attracting and retaining talent;

4. Increasing organizational agility;

5. Reducing the business risk of disruption from terrorism or a natural disaster; and

6. Reducing traffic congestion, air pollution, and environmental impact more generally

Then there's a less-measurable reason and, IMHO, the most important one: Corporations that support workplace flexibility reduce employee burnout.

I wrote a piece last week about a study that opened my eyes to one of the biggest "No duh's" in corporate culture: Companies that treat their employees like adults get the most out of them. It's all about respect.

What does respect mean today? Offering workers more money? Maybe in low-paying service industries, but in corporate, hardly. That's a very Gekko-esque assumption that a few extra dollars will make people forget they spend too many waking hours under fluorescent lights. The new premium of the late 90s was time and convenience, and it still is; but the new NEW premium of the 21st century is meaning: Help an employee do their job more efficiently and effectively, and help her get some form of personal satisfaction in or out of the workplace and you've got a loyal, productive employee.

Grantham and Ware make the point that even if you make flexible work time (and place) available to your employees, it ain't for everyone. The extroverts on the Meyers-Briggs scale derive their energy from being around others; allowing them to work from home might make them less productive and more apathetic toward their work. And some jobs simply require butts in cubicle seats, or onsite.

Grantham and Ware say that the jobs that are most conducive to flexible, or "distributed work environments" involve:

--significant amounts of "heads-down" individual work; --communication with others that is most frequently via telephone, email, or instant messaging; --projects that include team members who are already remote;

--frequent travel to other locations, within the company, or with clients or service providers ;

--significant variety in work activities – moving back and forth between individual and group work, between data collection, analysis, and report writing.

By making employees responsible for being present for meetings (in person or by phone), and for learning the technologies available to communicate their whereabouts, businesses can thrive.

Or can they? If the ROWE program becomes the corporate-cultural norm, will we have to time our meetings around colleagues' latte breaks? Will flex hours mean low accountability?

I don't think so, and here's why: There are also subliminal reasons why allowing employees more autonomy works, particularly in the U.S.: We're a guilt-ridden society, particularly the high-achievers. Give us a few hours to pick up our kids after school and we'll make up for it, probably when we should be sleeping.

Sure there are workers with little motivation who need less structure like they need recliners in their cubicles. But then, that's a bigger problem, isn't it?

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause and BlogHer.org.

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