Work ain’t what it used to be. It’s prompted us to ask ourselves, what do we even want from our jobs (besides compensation and better snacks of course)? In a pre-pandemic world, some of the most hospitable workplaces offered side benefits that allowed you to spend more time at work: childcare, lunches, on-site gyms. Billiards anyone? You could bring the rest of your life to work. Now, we’ve brought work into the rest of our lives in a big way.
Moving out of the office and into . . . anywhere, is throwing our work lives into stark relief. More time with family also means questions around childcare during the workday. Eliminating a commute adds more time to your day but eliminates time to decompress or gear up for work. One of the main questions is how to effectively manage teams when those team members don’t necessarily share physical space.
It turns out that a team of management consultants has been wrestling with this question for almost a decade. While examining how teams can be most efficient, they discovered that autonomy and flexibility around location are the key.
From their organizational work with Best Buy in the early 2000s, Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler developed the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE system. They define their optimal work environment as “a culture where there is an equal balance between accountability and autonomy for every person.” At the time, the Harvard Business Review called it “groundbreaking.”
Remote or flexible?
But why is this idea from 2013 garnering so much attention now, nearly a decade later?
Thompson says it’s because we’re conflating the idea of "remote" work with a working style that is actually flexible, that fits well into our larger lives as we’re confronted with the way the pandemic has changed our work life. Thompson’s definition of work flexibility includes the autonomy to choose where and when you complete a task and being empowered with the agency to make that decision yourself. Most importantly, flexible work is about being empowered by your business structure and your direct manager to use that agency. While many of us are working remotely more than ever before, most of us aren’t actually experiencing the benefits from a flexible work environment.
This tension between remote work and work that fits into our real lives is increasing the stresses on old management systems. Those systems may work in an in-person office setting but are cumbersome and stressful to employ with a remote workforce.
“First, it’s important to remember that work ‘isn’t a place you go, it's something you do.’ Focusing on the task at hand rather than the environment that it’s done in can allow workers to think flexibly and creatively about what needs to be accomplished.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. Resignations peaked in April and have remained abnormally high for the last several months, with a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of July. Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M coined the term “The Great Resignation” to define this period. Klotz, an organizational psychologist, told NPR that the pandemic is giving workers a chance to examine their work lives more introspectively. “We really had the time and the motivation to sit back and say, do I like the trajectory of my life? Am I pursuing a life that brings me well-being?"
Apparently, the answer is a resounding no. Thompson believes that we’re collectively voicing dissatisfaction with a permission-based relationship to our work by simply opting out.
“That's why we're having the Great Resignation. People don’t want to ask permission anymore,” says Thompson. “So what organizations are doing now is they're trying to drive the change through policy. We have to have a whole new practice of how we behave.”
One key to Thompson’s approach is that you don’t ask your manager for permission to reorganize a schedule or change a location. You decide the best place for the work to be done, and then it’s your responsibility to do it. Get in. Get out. And move on to your other passions in life. Thompson says digital communication makes it all possible. “We have a lot of ways to communicate. It doesn't matter where I am. What matters is that I get the work done. Period.”
The right mindset
Thompson says creating more autonomy in the workplace really boils down to mindset. She has two tips for how to examine your mindset and change it if you need to.
First, it’s important to remember that work “isn’t a place you go, it's something you do.” Focusing on the task at hand rather than the environment that it’s done in can allow workers to think flexibly and creatively about what needs to be accomplished. Thinking analytically about constraints placed on your work and examining if they are assumptions or necessities can lead to more flexible thinking. And flexible thinking can lead to foundational changes and improvements.
Second, Thompson says that leaders need to focus on the work that needs to be done and not on monitoring how, or where, it gets done. “Look at yourself in the environment, wherever it is. Everybody at home, everybody in the office, some hybrid. Ask yourself, ‘Am I managing work effectively with people and helping coach them along the way to help them be better? Or am I just managing where they work, what time they work?’”
The increase in remote work — and how businesses choose to enable it — will continue to redefine how our jobs fit into our lives. And exploring different approaches to autonomy, trust, and management will become a crucial weapon in the war for retaining and attracting talent. So, whether you’re prepared to go all-in for a truly ROWE approach or not, shifting priorities incrementally to suit the reality of your context can go a long way to creating a work environment that works for businesses and the people who work for them.
And if you enjoy a game of pool midday, by all means, rack 'em up.
Nick Yribar and Hannah Davis provided editorial support for this story.