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


Peter said...

An interesting proposition, that has seen some light in consulting where the reward is for results and not duration of effort ( focusing on outcomes rather than output ).
Of course, in order to make this approach effective you need to separate the hours for wage consideration and link the wage to the outcomes expected of the role. Thus, delivering the outcome in a 1/4 of the time wont cause the anticipated reaction of cutting the resources for the work or reducing the reward to achieve the pro-rata calculation that afflicts industrial age management.
I will, of course, need to read the book to appreciate how they addressed this challenge

Ben Maynard said...

Interesting insight into attitudes to flexible working. We are looking into this in some depth in the next installment of the Working Nation research . Could this 'model' lie behind the widespread distrust of flexible working felt by managers - that flexible working was a perk rather than a way of getting stuff done more efficiently