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Why the 40-Hour Workweek Is Broken: Q&A with Jody Thompson

Cornerstone Editors

Unlimited vacation days, flextime and telecommuting are all policies aimed at making employees happier and more productive at work. Jody Thompson, co-founder of consulting group CultureRX, says these measures are short-sighted. What inspires employees to produce more, higher quality work, she says, is complete autonomy over their schedules and 100 percent accountability for the work they do — not formal policies that require management approval and oversight. Here, Thompson discusses a workplace management model she helped create, called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), that aims to turn the 40-hour workweek on its head.

How does ROWE change how managers and employees think about work?

It’s a big shift. Managers are used to managing schedules and the 40-hour workweek. They’re used to employees asking questions like "Can I work from home?" and "Can I leave early?" Work becomes secondary and less relevant in the conversation. It’s a big switch for managers to not have to manage that piece. Using ROWE, people shift to managing 100 percent of their own time and can no longer default to "I’ve put in my time, so I’m done regardless of deadlines." It flips everybody’s mindset. We’re accountable for what we’ve been hired to do — the work.

And how does it change the way individuals and companies get work done?

It’s good for people because they know what they’re supposed to do, and they have control over their time. They know that if they do the right thing every day and produce what they’re accountable for, they’ll have a job. For the company what’s really great is that everybody has clarity about what they’re supposed to be doing. People aren’t just filling time, so there’s more planning, more direct communication, more productive meetings, and less wasted time.

What's the learning curve like for employees working according to your ROWE model?

Some employees have to experiment with different ways of working to find what works. In one example, an employee always wanted to work from home, and her work didn’t require her to be in the office. When she started working in another location, she didn’t do as well. Because her manager was now managing the work and not the person, she was having a different conversation with her. Instead of saying, "Well, you’re not getting your work done. You better get back in the office," she said, "We have had a conversation about what you need to produce and you’re not producing that. Let’s talk about what you need to do because you need to produce what we agreed upon. You were producing at that level before. Is there anything you need from me?" This person said, "I’ve been trying to work some different ways, and it’s not working for me. I’m going to make some changes because I know what I need to produce." This person decided she needed to come into the office, but the manager didn’t tell the person to do that because she was accountable and autonomous.

Can you describe how companies manage people instead of their work?

Often when business isn’t doing well, companies say, "Let’s get everyone on deck," when what they should be doing is having conversations about getting everyone on point. How can we get everyone on the same page about what they need to produce and the results we need to see? Getting everyone on deck, or back in the office, doesn’t mean people are going to understand what they need to be doing. They, in effect, started managing the people instead of the work, and that’s the wrong way to go about it.

What's the difference between how accountability and autonomy are defined under ROWE as opposed to core values?

A lot of organizations say that accountability and autonomy are part of their core values. But here’s where it doesn’t play out. They’ll say, "Yes, we want our people to be accountable and autonomous, but not our receptionist and not our call center," so they start to pick and choose because they’re still thinking in a flexibility mindset. They might say, "Well everybody can be autonomous, but if you’re going to work offsite you need to ask your manager’s permission." That’s not autonomous.

What will it take for companies to embrace ROWE?

It will take decades. ROWE is a social change that is disrupting what we believe about work. The concept is simple, but beliefs can be hard to change. One belief is "I believe people at work are working," and that belief in and of itself makes you think that people can’t be working anywhere but at work. Another deeply held belief: "I believe the best relationships are built face-to-face." If you believe that, you’re going to want everyone in the office and collaborating around a conference table. That’s ridiculous — the next generation is collaborating using FaceTime and Skype. But if you believe the best way to do it is in a conference room, you’re going to force people to come to the office.

These beliefs are holding us hostage, and it’s going to take a long time to break them down. We'll do it, one company at a time.

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