When was the last time you thought about how much our workplaces have changed with respect to when and how we work? If you did a little research, you’d find that a work schedule in the industrial age was often six days a week and 12 hours a day with no statutory holidays or scheduled vacation. Child labour was standard practice.
Wow, things have drastically changed! We now have legislation that protects workers in many different ways and the topic on everyone’s mind is how to facilitate life/work balance. Changes in legislation are continuing even today as evidenced by the recent introduction in Manitoba of the ability to structure flexible working schedules.
The concept of flexible work schedules has been around since the 1990s. Early programs offered employees the ability to select a variety of work schedules such as reduced work hours, early/late attendance and/or compressed work weeks. Flexible scheduling has continued to be effective for many employees and employers alike. Research has shown flexibility and the ability to have some control over one’s work will positively affect family life and reduce employee turnover.
On the other hand, some alternative work arrangements have also been pushed to the extreme. For instance, the U.S.-based company, Best Buy, a consumer electronics retailer, did more than implement a simple alternative work-arrangement project; they pioneered a radical and expansive program called ROWE. (results-only work environment). The program allowed employees to set their own work hours as well as their place of work. The only stipulation in the program was that work goals must be accomplished.
The Best Buy ROWE program was a major departure from any other flexible work-arrangement program and has certainly been quite controversial. While internal studies indicated a significant decline in turnover rates as well as an increase in employee morale, personal productivity and company savings, other studies raised concerns about the leadership and supervisory style required to manage such an independent workforce.
Today, more and more creativity with respect to work schedules and where we work are being implemented. With the proliferation of computer access, we see more and more employees working remotely as telecommuters or as home-stay workers who simply communicate with their employer on a daily basis.
This has worked well for sales professionals who keep a home office. These individuals can literally operate from a hotel room, a restaurant and/or a client location with no problem. In other words, for many careers professionals, having access to office or work space is becoming less important as a key to getting the work done.
This trend has also been a boon to many employers as they have taken advantage of an opportunity to reduce the size of their physical office space. Some businesses have gone so far as operating a "hotel" situation where employees have access to a shared office booked by appointment when the employees wish to come to the work site.
Yet, here we are some 10 years later learning the Best Buy ROWE program, a once radical but hailed program has now been cancelled.
While readers might attribute the sudden change of heart to Best Buy’s financial strain and business restructuring process, I believe comments from their spokesperson share a more telling story. This individual suggested the Rowe program led to managers having a difficult time working with their direct reports. As well, he declared the program was being perceived by employees as a "right and not a privilege."
Three issues might arise from these statements. First, it suggests supervisors and managers did not know how to manage in this environment. Second, it suggests the program may not have prepared workers to take on this level of responsibility. And finally, the situation might suggest a more competitive business environment requires a different workforce management model.
Managing in a more self-directed environment requires supervisors/managers to be very intentional, which means assessing work needs, assigning tasks, setting goals and providing followup in a more meaningful manner. Supervisors need to manage performance rather than trying to manage people’s time. This model also requires the recruitment and selection of both supervisors and employees who can thrive in this environment.
The supervisor, for instance, needs to be self-assured and assertive with strong communication skills and the ability to be direct. They need to be excellent project managers, organizers and planners who can set very specific goals for each employee and keep track of projects and job duties. They must be able to personally follow up on a regular basis, not only to track work, but to keep employees motivated and connected to the rest of the team.
In my experience, I find trouble begins when an employee no longer feels that sense of teamwork and begins to feel isolated, which acts as a demotivator. As well, followup is a big issue.
On the other hand, an employee who is successful as a home-stay worker also has special skills; especially that of being self-directed and self-motivated, with a strong personal drive to succeed and excellent time management. The ability to work independently for long periods of time without the need for frequent feedback from the manager is key.
Success also requires a good job match between the employee and the work. For instance, if a particular job role is more isolated then an introverted employee would do just fine. On the other hand, individuals who need a good deal of social stimulation to succeed would not do well in an environment that isolates them from others. Then again, some jobs are best suited to face-to-face contact.
The concept of flexible work arrangements has been accepted in society and is seen as a key means of bringing about life/work balance, especially for families. As well, today’s young workers want flexibility and organizations need to be open to creative arrangements in order to attract and retain their talent.
While the elimination of an alternative work schedule at Yahoo, and now Best Buy, raises fear businesses are turning back the clock on flexibility, I believe the concept is here to stay.
The challenge for organizations will be to implement a plan that works for them, and for which they can continue to provide the supports that ensure success.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org