“Could you do your work from home?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she told me.
How crazy is that? Her boss shouldn’t just be allowing her to work from home, he ought to be encouraging it.
Most employers still tell their employees when to come to work, when to leave, and how they’re expected to work when they’re there. Why not measure employees by the value they create, rather than by the number of hours they sit at a desk?
Too many companies continue to operate by the premise that their employees can’t be fully trusted, and so treat them as children, who must be continuously monitored.
The solution is to hire people you’re prepared to trust, and then treat them as adults, capable of making responsible adult choices. Do that, and it’s a good bet they will. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the more confidence managers have in their people, the better they perform.
At the same time, companies who give employees more autonomy have every right to expect accountability. That begins with clearly and explicitly defining what success looks like in any given job, and making that, rather than face time, the measuring stick.
I learned this very quickly in my own company. My first instinct was to have everyone at the office at the same time, because it seemed the most efficient way to work together, and it was convenient for me.
As it turned out, one executive had three young children, and lived more than an hour from the office. Spending that much time commuting wouldn’t have served her or us well. Another employee told me she was much more productive working from home. What I know now is that she gets a ton of work accomplished there.
A third employee’s commute takes twice as long if he leaves during rush hour, so now he comes in early and leaves early, when he’s not working from home. I myself like to write at home in the early morning, and come into the office later.
There are times, it turns out, when it’s important to have our whole team together, so we do try to schedule at least one day a week when that can happen.
What we’ve created is a variation on something called the “Results Only Work Environment,” which was first launched among corporate employees at Best Buy. “The simplest definition of a ROWE,” founders Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson have written, “is that each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done.”
Plainly, there are jobs where face-time is critical, such as a factory worker, or a salesperson in a retail store. Even at that, technology has made it possible to do many such jobs from anywhere. Most Jet Blue customer service agents, for example, work from home.
Giving people more freedom isn’t just about when and where they work, it’s also about how they work. Letting go of the “how” was something I found more challenging as a leader, because I invariably had strong opinions about the best way to do almost anything.
Over time, I discovered that the more autonomy I gave people, the more confident and expert they became in their domains, the more ownership they took of their results and the happier they were at work. I do weigh in today, and I try to be the voice of the big picture, but I almost never insist on my point of view.
If you define clear deliverables, and give people full responsibility for achieving them, my experience is they’ll over deliver far more often than they fall short. They’ll also feel more comfortable seeking help when they need it. As Hew Evans, a Sony HR director in Asia, puts it: “If your manager knows what you’re doing all the time, you’re not doing your job, and he’s not doing his.”
In our work with organizations, we do an exercise in which we ask employees to define their workdays in a way that would allow them to feel most productive and satisfied. Then we ask managers to meet with each of their employees and talk about how to best meet each team member’s unique preferences, while also taking account of the team’s overall needs.
The job of a leader or a manager, I’ve concluded, isn’t to tell people how to get their jobs done, or when and where they do their best work. Rather, it’s to free, fuel and inspire them to bring the best of themselves to work every day.