The New Office

Do any of the following describe you and your job?

  • have a long commute to an office where communication is mainly by email and phone
  • most in-person communication consists of long meetings that accomplish little
  • it’s hard to find time for tasks that demand dedicated attention; too many interruptions in the office
  • manage/report to people in other countries and time zones

Nine-to-five just seems archaic today. So many of our jobs revolve around people sitting in front of computers, yet we still cling to the factory model for structuring working hours. I’ve been working a straight job for only five years, but the one thing that has bugged me from the start—more than the cubicle, more than the corporate fun runs—is the underlying presumption that we all work the same way, from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. And girding that falsehood is a series of others: that our bosses have to see us to manage us; that those not in sight are escaping their responsibilities; that we worker drones are inherently lazy and need to be controlled.

Lucky then, that I am starting to find like-minded folk out there. Jason Fried of 37signals, a software company, discusses in this interview “Why You Can’t Work At Work,” where in 6 minutes he cogently explains the problems with the modern office. Interruptions lead to working longer hours, and personal life slips away as time is wasted. People start to hate their jobs, even if they like their work. 37signals has just released a new book about their ideas called Rework. [Sidenote: it is the first book I can remember in a long time that does not follow the Catchy Title: Long Explanatory Subtitle naming convention.]

An organization called ROWE is solely dedicated to spreading the idea of a Results-Only Work Environment. The tagline is “Where people are paid for productivity, not time spent ‘at work.'” Sounds exactly right. There are obvious benefits to the employees in such arrangements. Their time and freedom are restored to them. Not only do they not have to ask their boss for permission to see the dentist on a weekday, but they don’t have to request time off, either. The organization doesn’t care if you’re in New York, Maui, or Tajikistan as long as the work gets done. Individual freedom and responsibility leads to happier employees and better retention rates.

And what benefits go to the employer? Some ask how results would be measured. This is the first sign that the organization doesn’t currently measure results at all, except by confirming that employees are at their desks during business hours. If this is your only check on an employee’s productivity, then you actually have no idea if this person is worth paying at all. To those who say people would slack off given such freedom, guess what: we already do. When there is no requirement for anyone to be in the office at any particular time, and people are judged by the quality of their work alone, it is easy to tell who is doing a good job and who is not.

But what if people end up working different amounts of time? Isn’t that unfair? Not really, say I.The current system assumes that every working person has exactly 40 hours of work to do each week. Does that even remotely make sense? In reality, people’s productivity is limited by their environment, their attention span, stress levels, etc. Allowing them to choose their time and place of work is more likely to increases their productivity.

Of course not every job is suited to this. But for so-called “knowledge workers,” it’s the future. In addition to increased productivity, better retention rates, and lower stress levels among employees, businesses can see reduced costs through less office space, less travel, and a more robust business continuity plan—because every worker is already empowered to work wherever, whenever. A dispersed system is better prepared for the unexpected.

Really, the only thing holding us back is a lack of imagination and the crushing weight of the status quo. Start to talk about these things, however, and you’ll be surprised how much change is possible.

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