05/15/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Why Women Slackers Are More Productive at Work

Give it up, ladies. The fight for equal pay is useless. We are never going to earn as much as men because we don't work as many hours. That's the argument from Kay Hymowitz, who has apparently solved the mystery of the pay gap in her Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Why Women Make Less than Men." She cites copious amounts of data from the U.S. Department of Labor and others to point out that (1) men log more hours each week on the job than women and (2) we women have this inconvenient habit of taking time off to produce kids and take care of family members.

What she doesn't cite is how those hours are counted. It turns out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics relies on self-reports of time spent by each survey participant. And it also turns out that the more hours a person works, the more he or she tends to exaggerate how much time she/he spends on the job. John Robinson and his colleagues, in a study published last year in Monthly Labor Review, found that people regularly overestimate their hours by 5-10 percent.

But really, counting hours worked is so yesterday! It reminds me of a coworker several years ago who would hang a jacket over the back of his chair to signal that he was "in" the office when, in fact, he was nowhere in sight. Similarly, who's to say that when you're sitting at your desk in your office you're actually doing meaningful work? Your body is there, but your mind is on your upcoming vacation to the Caribbean.

Jody Thompson, co-founder of CultureRx and Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), says that we need to throw out the notion that time matters.

"Time plus physical presence does not equal results because we don't know what the results are half the time. So the only way we [say we] can judge people is by time. It's hard for a manager to get clear with people on what performance looks like. It's much easier to count butts in chairs: 'Look! All my people are here, they're dressed in their work clothes, they're sitting in their work station -- they must be working!' But in an authentic Results-Only Work Environment, you would never even think about how much time it takes. You would just say, 'here's what I need, in terms of outcome, and then here's how I'm going to measure that outcome.' Now you need to deliver it."

Thompson and her co-founder, Cali Ressler, installed a ROWE at Best Buy's (BBY) corporate headquarters and found that productivity increased by 30-40 percent depending on the department. Moreover, they found that as reported productivity rose, so did the business results.

How does a ROWE actually work? The basic tenet is "Each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done." But it's fundamentally a radical shift in attitude and culture surrounding work. The following "Guideposts" are reprinted from Thompson and Ressler's book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It:

1. People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer's time or the company's time.
2. Employees have the freedom to work any way they want.
3. Every day feels like Saturday.
4. People have an unlimited amount of "paid time off" as long as the work gets done.
5. Work isn't a place you go -- it's something you do.
6. Arriving at the workplace at 2:00 PM is not considered coming in late. Leaving the workplace at 2:00 PM is not considered leaving early.
7. Nobody talks about how many hours they work.
8. Every meeting is optional.
9. It's okay to grocery shop on a Wednesday morning, catch a movie on a Tuesday afternoon, or take a nap on a Thursday afternoon.
10. There are no work schedules.
11. Nobody feels guilty, overworked or stressed-out.
12. There aren't any last-minute fire drills.
13. There is no judgment about how you spend your time.

Does this sound radical to you? And how does this work in practice? It seems possible for an individual contributor on a team, but what if you're a heart surgeon who needs to be at the hospital when the patient is lying on the operating table? Thompson says that they've successfully implemented ROWE in all types of organizations including a childcare center, nursing home, government and educational institutions. And what makes the system work is accountability and peer control.

"You have to be accountable. A lot of natural cross training starts to happen because the entire team wants to make sure the outcome is achieved. If one worker consistently fails to deliver his or her part, then the team starts to reject that worker because they're not holding up their end of the bargain. It's a lot more about the team creating pressure together, because every single person has freedom - which they don't want to lose - so they support each other [toward the end result]."

Even if ROWE might seem less workable in some situations (think assembly line), it certainly would help us dispel the hours-spent-on-the-job argument. Hymowitz's conclusion that women earn less than men because they're slackers is wrong. In an ideal world, companies would pay for performance and performance usually equals outcomes -- not hours worked. Some companies, using ROWE or other performance-based metrics, offer hope for improvement. Therefore, ladies, the fight isn't over after all -- let's keep ROWE-ing.

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