Smashing The Clock

No schedules. No mandatory meetings.

At most companies, going AWOL during daylight hours would be grounds for a pink slip. Not at Best Buy. The nation's leading electronics retailer has embarked on a radical--if risky--experiment to transform a culture once known for killer hours and herd-riding bosses. The endeavor, called ROWE, for "results-only work environment," seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours. Hence workers pulling into the company's amenity-packed headquarters at 2 p.m. aren't considered late. Nor are those pulling out at 2 p.m. seen as leaving early. There are no schedules. No mandatory meetings. No impression-management hustles. Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do. It's O.K. to take conference calls while you hunt, collaborate from your lakeside cabin, or log on after dinner so you can spend the afternoon with your kid. 

Best Buy did not invent the post-geographic office. Tech companies have been going bedouin for several years. At IBM, 40% of the workforce has no official office; at AT&T, a third of managers are untethered. Sun Microsystems Inc. calculates that it's saved $400 million over six years in real estate costs by allowing nearly half of all employees to work anywhere they want. And this trend seems to have legs. A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that 85% of executives expect a big rise in the number of unleashed workers over the next five years. In fact, at many companies the most innovative new product may be the structure of the workplace itself. 

And this shift from the clock in clock out / butt-in-seat mentality is reinventing the way people look at the concept of work. Executive recruiting firm Thompson and Ressler recently published a study that showed a trend towards the virtual office as a major factor when people consider new opportunities. The ability to create one’s own schedule is a powerful selling tool and one that more and more people are weighing over factors like salary and benefits. 

If brick and mortar and nine to five (or whatever the new office hours have been stretched to…8 to 6, 7 to 7) are a dying breed then so too is the brick and mortar holding pens we call office space. Phyllis Moen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who researches work-life issues, is studying the Best Buy experiment in a project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. She says most companies are stuck in the 1930s when it comes to employees' and managers' relationships to time and work. "Our whole notion of paid work was developed within an assembly line culture," Moen says. "Showing up was work. Best Buy is recognizing that sitting in a chair is no longer working.

And so it remains to be said that if the very definition of work is being reinvented, so too is this new, modern, technologically enabled worker.

Respectfully, Lisa deSouza