Schafer: Flex-work initiatives drive sharp divisions

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2013 - 9:11 PM

« No results, no job. Not, no results, so everybody get back in the office. That is so ridiculous in 2013. » Jody Thompson, left, flex-work advocate

Lucky for Best Buy Co. that the decision to curtail its flexible work initiative followed a leak of Yahoo’s e-mail banning telecommuting.

That gave champions of flexible work a chance to fire all their rhetorical cannons at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer rather than in the direction of Best Buy’s Richfield headquarters.

The principals of the consulting firm CultureRX, who had originated the flex-work program known as Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, while working at Best Buy, fired their broadside at Mayer in the form of an open letter.

Here’s a highlight: “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a babysitter vs. a 21st century CEO.”

It seems that flexible-work initiatives, like Best Buy’s ROWE, brings out the fiercest partisans.

Most people can probably agree that an office wall clock need not control the workday and that being at work is not the same as actually working. And, yes, there are great tools for sharing work across time and space.

But ask people to come to a building to work, and every day have the chance to look across a table at colleagues while sharing an idea or solving a problem? Curiously, that’s turning into a controversial management practice.

Jody Thompson, with Cali Ressler, co-founded CultureRX and co-authored two books on ROWE. She is pleasant and quite funny in a conversation, but with the words she used to describe Yahoo and Best Buy — “backwards,” “stupid,” “old-fashioned” — it’s clear she can think of no valid case against initiatives like ROWE.

“No results, no job,” she said. “Not, no results, so everybody get back in the office. That is so ridiculous in 2013.”

ROWE, like some other flexible-work initiatives, was far broader than allowing employees to come and go as they pleased. At its core was shifting the attention of bosses, from first line on up, from managing an employee’s activities to managing just the specific and measurable results of his or her work. Sound simple?

Thompson acknowledged that it’s not. As she put it, “When companies say to us, ‘It’s really hard to manage results,’ I say, ‘Great, so what do you do? Just pay people for tripping along and not knowing what they’re supposed to do?’ ”

University of Minnesota sociology professor Erin Kelly’s research on Best Buy’s experience with ROWE helped raise the program’s profile. It found that employee control over the time and place of work leads to much lower turnover and even benefits like better sleep the day before reporting to work.

Kelly pointed out that her field is broad, with more than 700 presentations at the first meeting of the Work and Family Researchers Network last June. Kelly said “I don’t know of any research that shows negative impacts” of flexible work programs.

This could not have been news to Best Buy and Yahoo. But a fair conclusion is not that they cared little for whether employees feel fully committed to their work. It’s that they valued collaboration and creativity just as much.

Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman said that in a period of “transformation,” employees need to be present to work together on solving problems or capturing opportunities.

“Ours is a company that believes a great deal in flexibility,” he added. “But we view that flexibility as being between manager and employee, not simply with the employee themselves, as it was under the ROWE program.”

This is consistent with the e-mail from Yahoo. Business is a team sport, not an individual one.

You may be able to predict how Jody Thompson reacted to a rationale for greater collaboration through office time.

“You and I are collaborating right now,” Thompson told me. “We are in the same place. We are on Planet Earth, using our phones.”

And if a team decided the best results will come from collecting in one spot, she added, they can simply call a meeting.

What’s been largely missing in this discussion is a kind of middle ground, maybe something like the approach of Matthew Dornquast, who, like Thompson, described himself as “passionate” on the subject.

Dornquast is co-founder and CEO of Code 42 Software. While employees there come into the office, he does not appear to be in the mold of Henry Ford. No whistle blows at 5 at Code 42’s Minneapolis headquarters.

Code 42 has “core hours,” in by 9:30 a.m. and stay at least through 3:30 p.m. For him, working face-to-face and alongside each other is about enriched communication and creativity within teams and across teams.

“Creation is communal,” he said in an e-mail conversation. “More bandwidth is a good thing.”

He has a bit of a technical explanation, too.

The data transfer of reading on a computer screen, writing with a keyboard or talking on a phone tops out at approximately 120 bits per second. The eye and brain absorb information at 16 million bits per second.

I did not check this with a professor of neurology, but Dornquast explained that your combined see, hear, touch, taste and smell speed is 700,000 times faster than an ability to read and write words using a computer.

“It’s no wonder why studies show 60 to 70 percent of communication is nonverbal,” he continued. “This is why I silently weep when I watch an employee typing into a phone with two thumbs. Think of the waste.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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  • « Creation is communal. … It’s no wonder why studies show 60 to 70 percent of communication is nonverbal. »Matthew Dornquast, right, whose company has “core hours” when employees are expected to be in the office

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