Disposing of Workers, Flexible Work Practices, or Outdated Views on Work?

| No Comments

With many people still buzzing about Yahoo's termination of its telecommuting program, Best Buy has just announced the end of its Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) in which only job performance for corporate employees mattered, not time worked or time spent in the office. Like Yahoo last week, Best Buy attributes its decision to a need for greater collaboration among employees. According to a Best Buy spokesperson, "Bottom line, it's 'all hands on deck' at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business" (Star Tribune, March 5, 2013). But there might be something deeper and more troubling at work (no pun intended).

According to a Star Tribune article, last November Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly indicated that he aimed to restore accountability and said "You need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable." This is a very frank and revealing statement. The implication is that self-directed employees, as those working under Best Buy's ROWE program or Yahoo's telecommuting policy, have it too easy. Workers need to feel the threat of being replaced in order to be motivated to perform at a high level.

This is certainly not a new attitude towards workers. Indeed, this was arguably the dominant approach to supervision in the steel mills, factories, and other industries 100 years ago. Workers were motivated by threats, verbal abuse, sometimes physical abuse, and a constant reminder that there were other workers massed at the factory gate poised to take their jobs. This has been called the drive system, and served as a rallying point for labor union leaders, reformers, progressive corporate leaders, and others to humanize the employment relationship (or in more radical circles, to replace capitalism with a system that treated workers with greater dignity).

One of the intellectual foundations of this perspective is the view that work is a lousy activity that we only endure to earn income. Without strong economic incentives or close supervision and monitoring, workers are believed to slack off and not work very hard. This perspective discounts intrinsic rewards, feelings of service, desires for a healthy identity, and other non-economic motivations for working hard. This perspective frequently goes hand-in-hand with an elitist view in which those higher in the organization are assumed to better know how work really should be done.

So to return to the termination of the flexible, self-directed employment practices at Yahoo and Best Buy, maybe the corporate leaders backing these decisions are sincere in their belief that the workers need to be physically present in the office to improve collaboration. But statements by these same leaders saying that workers "need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable" suggest a more enduring motivation for the changes--that is, a perceived need to closely supervise workers, impose management's "one best way" of working, and drive them to work harder--that are rooted in longstanding views that degrade work and workers. Unfortunately, these views all too often seem indispensable, but they should be disposable.

UPDATE

In a March 17 Star Tribune commentary piece, Mr. Joly indicated that his remarks were misconstrued: "I was not talking about our employees; I was talking about myself being dispensable....Leaders need to remind themselves that they and their identities are distinct from their position and that they will leave someday, with the organization going on without them. That is why it is so critical that good leaders focus not on preserving their job but serving the organization and preparing the next generation to assume their role."

In that same commentary, he also explains the termination of the ROWE program: "This program was based on the premise that the right leadership style is always delegation....Well, anyone who has led a team knows that delegation is not always the most effective leadership style....Depending on the skill and will of the individual, the right leadership style may be coaching, motivating or directing rather than delegating. A leader has to pick the right style of leadership for each employee, and it is not one-size-fits-all, as the ROWE program would have suggested."

An online comment posted in response to this is quite insightful: "As a 15-year employee of Best Buy, and one that helped launch ROWE within the corporate campus, Mr. Joly's comments show that he truly does not understand what the Results Only Work Environment program is. He refers to it as a "one-size-fit-all" approach and seems to believe that it is only about "delegation". Neither one of these are even remotely true....He does correctly state that there is a failure of leadership execution. That is the real challenge of ROWE. You have to have strong leadership that fully understands the work that their team is responsible to produce. Too many Best Buy leaders don't understand what their teams do, nor could they step in and do it themselves. That gap makes managing and leading a team effectively, impossible."

To the extent that this leadership failure is rooted in elitist views in which those higher in the organization are assumed to (a) being doing more important work and (b) better know how work really should be done, then we are right back to longstanding views that degrade work and workers, irrespective of whether Mr. Joly's specific words were misconstrued.

Leave a comment

 

About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.