Tuesday, September 05, 2006

People Work Better Treated like People

(A belated post for labor day.)

There was an interesting story on NPR a month or two ago about how Best Buy is letting its (managerial) workers structure their own work. From the squib:
[Best Buy] has abandoned the concept of a regular workday.... [It] is encouraging much of its corporate staff to work whatever hours they want, and to do so wherever they please. The company says productivity is booming.
This story has gotten surprisingly little play in the media. A quick google search only turned up one other story about it, a Time magazine piece from about a year ago. The Time piece is now behind their firewall, but there is a summary of it here.

It's been successful in ways beyond simply increasing productivity: employees are much happier -- they are giving up promotions if those would bump them into a department that has not yet gone to the ROWE ("results-oriented work environment") system (the departments are apparently going at their own pace; not all have made the transition yet). And, for those who actually care about the family values that get so much lip service, people are spending more time with their kids.

All this and -- to repeat -- more productivity too.

It's an interesting story -- but one which, on some level, ought to be predictable. It is, on some level, the opposite of Taylorism, a progressive-era U.S. movement which sought to use "scientific" (which was basically a parody of true scientific thinking, one which scraped the shiny surface off it and ignored the engine underneath) methods to control workers, on an incredibly detailed level. Workers hated it, of course, and pushed back. And, it turned out, workers knew their jobs better than "scientists" who swept in for the day.

There are some down sides, as expressed in the Time article:
In exchange for more autonomy, Best Buy employees give up the guidelines that signal where work ends and leisure begins. Janssen says the hardest adjustment was "not working 24 hours a day. Because you have that ability now. I had to learn when enough is enough." Moen says the old rigid system is comforting for routine-loving workers. ROWE, she says, "could be harder for people who want order in their lives."
There is also the adjustment that showing up early and leaving late is no longer a way to show dedication -- no longer a sign meaning "good employee". Overall, though, the employees love it. They have more productive meetings, since the time is real time now -- why waste it? They are less stressed and have more time with their families. The managers have "learn[ed] how to stop treating [their] employees as if they were 'unruly children'" -- which, face it, ought to happen, since we are talking about adults here: it is clearly better for their health and sanity and happiness if they're treated like, well, adults.

And I think that people work best when treated like adults -- like people, one might say. This is more or less inarguably true of people doing any sort of work which requires thought or creativity -- such as the corporate staff at Best Buy. But I would wager that, with some, well, thought and creativity, it could be made to be true of many other work environments as well. I'd love to see Best Buy try -- and one store -- to organize its sales staff this way. (According to the story in Time, Best Buy is "working" on a way to do this.) It couldn't be precisely the same, perhaps -- but I bet a great more flexibility, a lot less ordering-about and a lot more let's-make-sure-the-task-is-done could do a lot of good. It seems worth trying at any rate.

And I would certainly like to see a lot more businesses try this sort of model. It would not only be more productive: it would be healthier for our culture and our society. People ought to be treated like people, able to arrange their own affairs. Why not give it a try?

Update: At the other place where I post these musings, a commentator asked this question: "...more companies should adopt this. Companies are so loath to change, though. Do you think many large corporations actually will do this?"

I think the answer is twofold.

The first part is, alas, probably not. As she says, businesses loathe change. It's new. It's unlikely.

But the second part -- perhaps the important part -- is: They will if we push them. This pushing will, necessarily, have multiple parts: asking, talking about the idea in public, pushing the idea in public, forming unions, agitating by unions, slowly turning it into a cultural norm. In short -- like so many other things -- we can do it if, collectively, we decide to.

"If you will it, it is no dream".

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