Today’s Corporate Scapegoat is: Flexible Work!

Photo credit: procsilas

Photo credit: procsilas

A number of corporate executives have recently come out swinging against a common enemy. Apparently sagging profits or lethargic performance can be traced to an insidious cause – telecommuters and the idea of “flexible work.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer amped up the debate with her declaration that her employees need to stop telecommuting and need to start showing up to work “in (their) offices.” Then Best Buy, which has received national attention for years as a leader in flexible work approaches, announced it was ending its “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE) policy, which allowed employees to work when and where they wanted as long as they were getting their work done.

It’s become quite fashionable to trumpet the idea of the “all hands on deck” approach, and the benefits of face time as a way to promote teamwork, collaboration and creativity. But as someone who worked at Best Buy when ROWE was first rolled out, and as someone who enjoyed the benefits of the policy, I can say with certainty that the current venom toward workplace flexibility is misguided.

There are a few basic misconceptions about ROWE that seem to be central to the criticism of the policy.

1. ROWE allows people to avoid work

While there are many jobs that don’t lend themselves to working remotely or on a flexible schedule, there are others that do. Flexible work depends on workers making good choices about how they interpret the policy to meet their job needs.

If you need to be on site to get your job done, you better be on site. But if there are elements of your job that you can do at home, or at a coffee shop, or late at night after you put your kids to bed, allowing that flexibility can increase productivity.

Also, anyone who thinks that it’s impossible to avoid work when you are “in the office” has probably not spent a lot of time in an office environment. Sometimes the distraction of co-workers is just the ticket if you want to while away an afternoon.

2. ROWE discourages teamwork

Again, if your job requires you to work as part of a team, ROWE should never get in the way.

In most jobs you have moments of collaboration and you have moments where you need to execute your part of a plan. The spirit of ROWE would dictate that you fully participate in team meetings, brainstorms, creative exercises, and team building practices. None of that changes. But when it comes time for you to focus in on your specific responsibilities, you are free to make decisions about how, when and where you will best accomplish the tasks at hand.

3. ROWE doesn’t provide accountability

Accountability is actually the central feature of ROWE. You are judged by your actions and the results you produce for your employer. If you work remotely for a day and don’t get anything done, you need to be held accountable by your boss. In the same way, if you sit at your desk for 12 hours don’t get anything done, you need to be held accountable. To blame ROWE for a lack of productivity or accountability is shirking your responsibility as a supervisor.

4. ROWE is all about staying home from work

Every employee interprets ROWE differently based on his or her needs. For me, it gave me the freedom to attend parent teacher conferences, or a play at my daughters’ school, without worrying about declaring those hours as vacation or personal time. I knew I could get my work done at other times, and it relieved stress knowing I could be there for important moments with my family.

To this day I maintain that ROWE was the single greatest employee benefit I have ever had at a job. It was during my time at Best Buy that my wife was diagnosed with leukemia. I was able to work from her hospital room when I had to. I never missed a doctor appointment. Nobody at work noticed or cared if I had to leave work early to pick my daughters up from school. I had great relationships with my co-workers. We did groundbreaking and creative work together. Our team was built on mutual trust, not “face time.” I am still very loyal to Best Buy for the way they treated me as an employee.

While I am no longer at Best Buy, I have continued to incorporate elements of ROWE in my leadership style. I treat my team members as adults, allowing them to have the flexibility they need to make sure they are balancing work and life in a productive manner. Do I expect high achievement? Absolutely. Do I care if someone has to come in a little late, leave a little early, or they need to work from home from time to time? Absolutely not.

I believe we are most productive and creative when we are free from unnecessary stress, and we have reasonable work-life balance. I hope that the current attempts to scapegoat flexible work policies will pass, and people can start to concentrate on larger issues of employee engagement, strategic thinking, and performance.

What do you think about flexible work policies? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.