Monday, September 08, 2008

Beyond Flexible Working

Since the turn of the 21st Century we have seen a massive growth in interest in new working practices generally under the umbrella of ‘Flexible Working’. The topic has moved from being a curiosity to being a part of business strategy and from an HR issue to being the concern of all managers. But despite that evolution, flexible working is still seen as an employee benefit alongside maternity leave and other ‘family friendly’ policies. This situation is endorsed by UK legislation that gives the ‘right to request’ flexible working to parents of young children and carers for other dependents.

So ‘normal’ working patterns are still seen to be a version of the ‘fixed time and place’ model established in the Industrial revolution and perfected over the next 200 years. ‘Flexible Working’ is something that is by definition abnormal since people have to request to change to it from their existing pattern. Granting this privilege is therefore seen as a management responsibility and the UK legislation very kindly gives employers a whole list of reasons they can use for turning down an employee’s request. So there is still a fundamental assumption in our approach to work, that it has to be done at a time and place dictated by an employer and that some flexibility may be generously given to employees if the management chooses to do so.

The model of work that we are still using today is essentially based on time. If you give me your time to perform a job, I will reward you per hour. If you are a ‘part-time’ person and work less than the normal hours you will be rewarded pro-rata. In many business cultures it is expected that people will work much longer that the contracted hours and are seen to be ‘loyal’, ‘dedicated’ and ‘hard working’ so they consequently get recognised, rewarded and promoted. What we are doing is rewarding effort rather than rewarding outcomes.

Paying people by the hour is the opposite of rewarding productivity. If you work slowly to perform a task you will get paid more than if you work quickly. If my solicitor takes 2 hours to sort out my legal problem I pay her twice as much as one who fixes it in an hour. If my plumber takes three hours to fix a leak he gets paid more than the efficient one who does it in an hour. We even encourage people to slow down their rate of work during ‘normal’ hours so a job runs over into ‘unsocial’ hours and we pay a higher rate to compensate. When people are paid for a fixed number of hours per week, as is the situation for the vast majority of employees, working efficiently and completing tasks quickly simply results in being given more to do to fill up the hours.

So whilst the current trend towards ‘flexible working’ is a step towards a more sensible approach to work it still misses a fundamental point. Who is responsible for getting work done? If management divides work into jobs and allocates them to people in return for a number of hours of their labour we stay with the current ‘industrial age’ model of work. If a group of people agree what they are going to achieve then each carry out the tasks necessary to provide the results required, we have a different view of work more appropriate for the ‘information age’. So by allowing individuals to take responsibility for producing results and rewarding them for outputs not inputs we have a new approach to work. This ‘Results Only Work Environment’ or ROWE for short, has been adopted very successfully by Best Buy, a Fortune 100 company employing 140,000 people worldwide. This proves that this is not just a fad amongst a few small companies but is a serious business strategy with outstanding results.

For more information about the Best Buy experience read the book 'Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it' by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

Monday, July 21, 2008

Common Sense re Maternity

I had the pleasure last week to attend the session run by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission where Nicola Brewer pointed out that extending the maternity rights for women was having the effect of encouraging employers to discriminate against women. At last someone has had the nerve to push back on political correctness and say something that is obvious.

I remember a couple of years ago an MEP (male) saying something similar and being immediately branded 'sexist' and out of date. Now someone else has pointed out the obvious it may be taken more seriously.

It seems to me that in an equal opportunities world we should not have such a massive difference between maternity and paternity benefits. If we have something approaching equal pay there is a 50% chance that the mother of a child is the higher earner in the relationship and for economic reasons should return to work as soon as possible leaving the father to have the major childcare responsibility.

However there are reasons other than money that will influence who takes which share of the childcare. So why not treat parents like adults and let them decide between them who takes the time (and money) for looking after a baby. Some other countries do this successfully so there is no reason why we shouldn't. It would then become more socially acceptable for fathers to become carers and some of the current gender differences and stereotypes would be eroded.

As long as we have a massive difference between maternity and paternity provisions we reinforce the steroetype of women having children and men having careers. This is a 19th century view of work which is totally inappropriate for the 21st century. Let's hope the politicians will now catch up!!