A couple years ago I learned about some crazy happenings at the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio: they didn’t go to work. WHAT!? Awesome. Last year during SXSW, I had the good luck to meet and become friends with their CEO and implementor of no-office office, Jessica Lawrence. Now just a few days away from that annual week of coolness, Jessica is prepping to lead a session on that crazy system, known as ROWE, so we invited her to share a little insight here in Connection Café. Take it away Jessica.
There was a time when making a phone call for work meant you needed to be seated at your office desk. Not only that, but if you worked in a big office, it meant a room full of operators sitting at a switchboard, physically plugging in and unplugging cords, just to make sure the call got to the right person.
Your files could only be found in massive file cabinets. Your computer – once it finally shrunk down from the size of a room – had to stay on your desk. Almost every piece of office equipment made it virtually impossible to work anywhere but the office.
Eventually, though, computers and phones became portable, shrinking to the point where we can now fit them into our purses and our pockets. When did our office equipment start shrinking? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Actually the first laptops hit the market 20 years ago and cell phones started shrinking in the early 1990s. The Internet and options for storing files outside of standard onsite servers became available around the same.
Technically, we could have started the movement towards working remotely much sooner, but we tend to define work by the activities we’ve come to believe look like work: sitting at a desk, occupying a cubicle, being in a meeting, talking on the office phone, and working at a computer. Sitting in a coffee shop doesn’t necessarily look like work. Neither does lounging in a chair at home, reading a book.
The coffee shop and the lounge chair also present another problem: they don’t allow bosses to do the typical drive by cubicle and office sightings to make sure all employees are present and accounted for. Because if an employee is physically present, they must be working, right?
The problem with this notion of work though, is that we’re buying into illusions. Seeing someone sit at a computer doesn’t mean that they’re working. They could be watching videos of kittens on YouTube. And that person lounging in their chair at home who doesn’t look like they’re working at all? They could be reading a book that gives them an idea that changes the future of their company.
Since we can’t trust visual cues to tell us what is work and what isn’t work, we can no longer accept someone’s physical presence in an office as an indication that they’re doing something useful. So what do we put in its place? How about a work environment where employees where the focus is on an employee’s ability to produce results and not on their ability to show up on time?
That way of working exists – it’s called a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) and it was first implemented at Best Buy headquarters a few years ago by two women – Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson – who believed that there had to be a better and smarter way for us to work.
They believed that by creating an environment that was focused on results, both the employees and the company would benefit. With greater trust and autonomy, employees would gain back significant control of their lives, and in doing so would become more engaged and productive. They would be able to stop wasting time on ridiculous red-tape exercises like submitting written requests to leave work an hour early because they needed to pick their child up from school or sitting in completely useless meetings that didn’t help them achieve their results.
Cali and Jody’s prediction that switching to a work environment that focused on results and not on physical presence would produce positive results came true, and not just for the employees of Best Buy. In 2008, I had stumbled across their book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It in an airport bookstore. I read it cover-to-cover on my flight and was hooked. Within a month, I had moved Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council (where I was CEO at the time) to become the first nonprofit in the country to migrate to a results-only work environment.
Our results mirrored what Cali and Jody had observed at Best Buy. Increased productivity. Decreased voluntary turnover. Increased efficiency. Increased innovation. Employees who were healthier and happier. By allowing employees to work wherever and whenever they wanted, they chose to work when and where they would be most productive. They chose their work locations based on what they needed to do to achieve their results, not based on some superficial need for physical presence in an office.
Making that shift would not have been possible without the technology to support remote work. Laptops. Cell phones. Software as a service. Migrating towards cloud computing for our server and backup needs. We had to have access to those tools to truly make the transition to a location agnostic work environment.
Companies that are still stuck in the land of facetime often use technology as the scapegoat for why they won’t change: they claim that the technology is either too expensive or not secure enough or both. The truth is that in the majority of cases, neither of those things are true, and when you factor in the benefits of allowing employees to work outside the confines of an office, the costs shrink even further.
The evidence is there. The technology is there. Why is that we need offices again?
Jessica Lawrence is the former CEO of Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council, a nationally chartered but independently operated nonprofit serving over 10,000 girls in inland Southern California. She is now a freelance writer, a speaker, and coach for people rebelling against the status quo. She will be speaking more in-depth about results-only work environments and her organization’s cultural transformation at both SXSW Interactive and the Nonprofit Technology Conference this month.
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