One of the ongoing mysteries of modern business for me is the reluctance of American corporate leaders – particularly in Human Resources – to fully embrace the management credo that focuses on work output rather than hours worked (the old “butt in the seat” mentality.) This movement has picked up speed as technology expands the opportunity to do work and stay connected pretty well anywhere in the world. I’ve had the good fortune to work at organizations at various places on this continuum, ranging from total autonomy (a truly mobile, virtual office environment) to a much more regimented office environment…where the hours when you arrive and leave are seen as a litmus test of dedication and productivity. Unfortunately, the latter is more the norm, particularly in the corporate environment. (I recall one job where leaving before 8 pm was seen as such an affront that colleagues would avert their eyes to avoid any semblance of silent collaboration with my “early” departure.) Agencies and consulting firms can also demand long hours, but they tend to be based more on business and client requirements and staff are typically given much more autonomy to decide where, when and how to complete their work.
The authors quoted in this recent BusinessWeek article suggest that the problem is not just an executive aversion to risk, but an outdated and unfounded logic based on the false premise that hours worked equal productivity. That argument has been so thoroughly debunked by many companies (Cisco, Best Buy and REI come to mind) you’d think resistance would be eroding. Yet, many leaders and board members continue to look askance at any suggestion that the traditional 9-to-5 model be changed. I think another factor is that deep down, many managers still do not trust their employees to do the right thing and do their jobs. I would argue that assumption is equally questionable – and the problem is not the working environment or rules but the lack of commitment and productivity of the individual employee. The problem is the person, not the rulebook.
True, not every company, job or person are well suited to an autonomous, flexible model. There are important considerations when dealing with a blue-collar workforce, for example, and some jobs require on-the-job presence, but for many positions the work can be done just as well from home, the road or even the beach or coffeeshop – whether in groups or solo. And even for manufacturing gigs, there is room to give staff more freedom to decide their routine and hours…as long as the production stays on track. In an age where there are increasing productivity expectations on workers, and where work demands continue to encroach into personal time, it’s neither fair nor realistic to for companies to demand flexibility from employees without affording them the same commitment in return.