06/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Peaceful Revolution : Stop Watching The Clock

In 2000, Best Buy Co., Inc. was like most Fortune 100 companies. People scrambled to get to work on time, got stuck in endless meetings, felt overworked, and talked endlessly about work-life balance but never achieved it. In other words, work sucked. And then, everything changed. Here's a story from a Best Buy manager (in her own words) about what life is like now:

The best thing for me as a manager is not having to be the hall monitor. I used to hear things all the time from my employees like "So-and-so was out in the smoke room for 20 minutes," "So-and-so was playing games on the internet." I don't care! But I heard it every time I would come back from a meeting, every time I would walk down the cube aisle. That kind of stuff is such a waste of everyone's time. That backbiting and gossip is so typical in a work environment, but now I don't have to deal with it anymore.

Everyone wants to help each other now, more than they did before. When someone is finished with their own reconciliations, they ask their co-workers if they can help them with theirs. It's no longer "This is my work and that's your work." It's now OUR work. At another company, they might try to do teambuilding event after teambuilding event to try to get this kind of teamwork happening, but we've done none of that. It's just something that ROWE creates naturally.

The ROWE the manager is referring to stands for Results-Only Work Environment. In a ROWE, people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Instead of having a workplace that focuses on time and physical presence, the culture is focused only on results. As long as people get their work done, they have complete control over their time. This simple (but not necessarily easy) shift in people's attitudes about what work looks like is perhaps the most elegant solution to problems facing working families today.

The problem with the current argument we're having about work-life balance is that it's fundamentally flawed. In today's workplace, employers and employees fight over when, where and how people work. Management says they need you in your cube from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. People say they need more flexibility to cope with the increasing demands of daily life. As a result, balance is a source of conflict. The perception is that an employee's gain is a loss for the employer.

The reason we're having this fight is because the attitudes and beliefs that govern the workplace haven't kept up with changes brought about by globalization and technology. Under the old model, work was a place. It was somewhere you went, because work could only get done in the workplace. You went to the office because that's where the landlines, the typing pools, and those little pink "While You Were Out" pads were housed. The only choice was to be either at work or not at work.

In the 2000s, work can happen (and does happen) everywhere and anywhere, around the world, at all hours of the day, but we're still fighting over time as if it were the 1950s. We're still acting as if work can only happen in one place, during prescribed hours. In our personal lives, we can shop online at 3:00 a.m., record TV shows on our DVRs and watch them on our own terms, and take phone calls in the middle of the desert. Most of the work we do (even people in "Old Economy" sectors like agriculture and manufacturing) has been profoundly transformed by technology. Why do our workplace policies still reflect the assembly line and the factory floor of yesterday? We're all knowledge workers now.

What happens when we stop caring about what work looks like? (Does work have to happen in an office? Does it have to start at 8:00 a.m.? Or end at 5:00 p.m.?) What happens is both employers and employees stop serving the outdated culture of work. They stop playing games with each other and start getting their work done. For employers, this means huge gains in productivity (up an average of 41% on Best Buy teams). For employees, this means getting their lives back. You can logon at 6:00 a.m. and answer some e-mails, take your time to make breakfast with your kids, go to the gym, head to the office (at 10:00 a.m.) to take some meetings, do errands in the middle of the day, and maybe logon on again at night to wrap things up. You get to decide what your day is like, not the employee manual.

We think giving employees control over their time is just common sense. Treat people like grownups, and they will respond by giving you their best work. In exchange, they get control over their time. The Best Buy manager and her team never could have figured out balance under the old system. They would still try to fit "flexibility" into the old rigid model. But today, the manager doesn't have to be a hall monitor (and her employee doesn't have to lie about needing a new water meter) and it's not because of a new flextime policy or a pilot experimenting with telecommuting. The reason is that the entire culture of the workplace has changed to one that focuses on results. And the culture changed because everyone looked past the fight.

A Peaceful Revolution is a weekly blog about work/life satisfaction done in collaboration with Read a post by a leading thinker in the field every week.