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How to Achieve Sustainable Remote Work | The New Yorker

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Our pandemic experiment with remote work has reset our expectations about where and when work takes place.Photograph from Getty

In 2004, Best Buy was facing a problem at its corporate headquarters, in Minneapolis-St. Paul: job-hopping. The issue of how to retain valuable employees has always vexed the business world, but the concern was amplified at Best Buy because it wasn’t the only major retailer based in the Twin Cities. Just miles north on Interstate 35, the Target Corporation occupied two-thirds of a fifty-one-story skyscraper, and other consumer-focussed companies—such as 3M, General Mills, and Dairy Queen—also had offices in the region. The result was an intense competition for experienced hires, who could shop their talents at multiple firms without having to change where they lived.

It was in this context that Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two human-resources employees at Best Buy, came up with an ambitious experiment. Ressler designed work-life programs for the company, and Thompson was a “change manager” who helped guide Best Buy through large-scale organizational shifts. Ressler told Thompson that she wanted to test her intuition that what people really craved, more than increased compensation or generous benefits, was autonomy over when, where, and how they worked. Traditionally, companies sought to enhance employee autonomy with flex-time programs, but Ressler and Thompson came to believe that these weren’t nearly sufficient. “We soon understood that people don’t want ‘flexibility,’ ” Thompson said recently, when I interviewed her about this period. “Here’s what they want: complete control over their time.”

Between 2005 and 2007, Ressler and Thompson ran a pilot program with employees from the Best Buy Dotcom and communication teams. At first, the program allowed people to choose which days they worked in the office and which days they worked remotely, without having to ask permission from a manager. When this approach was first presented, managers worried that there would be days with no one working or that some employees would abuse the freedom and barely work at all. To calm these concerns, Ressler and Thompson ran an exercise in which they hung a monthly calendar on the office wall. They gave every employee a collection of red, yellow, and green dot stickers, and told them to mark their work plan on the calendar: putting a red dot on a day to indicate not working, yellow to indicate remote working, and green to indicate working in the office. The kaleidoscope of colors provided visual evidence that even self-directed efforts would cohere into a reasonable over-all pattern. “Nobody was abusing the idea by putting red dots on every day,” Thompson said. “At any given time, work was happening.”

Ressler and Thompson soon realized that even this looser scheme gave managers too much control over their employees’ time. “Let’s say you set your flexible schedule—Monday through Thursday at the office, with Fridays at home,” Thompson said. “Then your tooth falls out on Wednesday. Now you have to go to your boss and get permission to go to the dentist, and he’s, like, ‘I thought Friday was your day off? Now you have to work here then.’ ” This was not real autonomy. So Ressler and Thompson took a leap with their pilot program, telling the participants that they could work whenever, wherever, as long as the work got done, without the need to commit to a fixed schedule in advance or even announce their decisions. There were more complaints from some of the managers. “How will I know people are working if I can’t see them?,” they asked. “How do you know they’re working just because they’re in the office?,” Thompson replied. “People are sitting in their cubes, going to meetings, grumbling about how busy they are, but are they actually making progress on measurable results?”

The final step toward complete autonomy was not simple. In an outcome-centric workplace, you can no longer casually and ambiguously drop an obligation on someone else’s plate—the forwarded e-mail thread with an appended “Thoughts?” or the quick request, delivered by a boss passing in the hallway, to “get into” an issue. The pilot participants had to rewire their office interactions to expand these casual handoffs into a structured negotiation: what exactly is being asked, when exactly is it needed, and what other communication will be required between now and then to get it done? Both parties had to agree on a plan that balanced the urgency of the task and the reality of its executor’s workload. Ressler and Thompson ran training sessions in which mock negotiations like these were acted out. These sessions were eventually accompanied by a set of thirteen directives called guideposts, designed to be extreme in an attempt to shock people into a new mind-set: “Every day feels like Saturday,” one read. “It’s okay to grocery shop on a Wednesday morning,” another read.

The biggest challenges to overcome were interpersonal. Passive-aggressive comments about peoples’ work behavior—“Are you leaving early again today?”—had a chilling effect on autonomy. Ressler and Thompson introduced a term for this commentary: “sludge.” Their first attempts to rein it in were simple: a jar in the break room where you’d add a quarter every time you “flung sludge,” and thirty-minute sessions in which employees were encouraged to spew out every type of subtle negative comment of this type that they could remember ever hearing. (One group managed to come up with more than a hundred different comments in only twenty minutes.) Soon, Ressler and Thompson defined a complex ontology surrounding this behavior, including “Sludge Anticipation,” “Back Sludge,” and “Sludge Conspiracy.” They developed a detailed training program that they called the Environmental Sludge Eradication Strategy.

These efforts eventually had the intended effect. Managers largely stopped questioning when their employees were in the office or whether they were sufficiently accessible while at home. The focus shifted to whether or not clearly defined work was actually accomplished by the negotiated deadline. Even meetings became optional: if you wanted someone to attend your PowerPoint presentation, you had to convince them that it was worth their time. Ressler and Thompson called the setup a results-only work environment, or ROWE for short.

The pilot program accomplished its original goal of reducing employee turnover. Not surprisingly, other teams began asking about ROWE. Ressler and Thompson decided to let the program spread organically, waiting for interested teams to come to them instead of pushing to have the program mandated. The strategy worked. By 2008, more than eighty per cent of the employees at the corporate headquarters were operating in a results-only work environment. The reduced voluntary turnover saved Best Buy money, which Ressler and Thompson estimated to be in the millions. Employees participating in ROWE self-reported higher productivity and improved well-being. Ressler and Thompson, inspired by what they observed, left the company to start a consulting firm, CultureRx, aimed at helping other organizations embrace the gospel of ROWE.

But then, suddenly, these changes at Best Buy were reversed. In the spring of 2013, Best Buy’s newly appointed C.E.O., Hubert Joly, cancelled the program. As a company spokesperson clarified, in a press statement describing the change, “bottom line, ‘it’s all hands on deck’ at Best Buy, and that means having employees in the office as much as possible.”

I was reminded of this saga in early June, when Apple’s C.E.O., Tim Cook, sent an e-mail to Apple employees informing them that, starting in early September, they would be required to return to the office at least three days a week. His justification was similar to Best Buy’s explanation for the cancellation of ROWE: “For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separate,” Cook wrote, “the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other.”

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Cook is not alone in his frustration with our recent experiment in large-scale remote work. Though many executives were relieved to discover that their companies could operate with shuttered office buildings, the shift was not always smooth. A longitudinal study of remote workers around the world, conducted last year during the pandemic, found that many managers expressed concern that the performance of telecommuters would be “lower” than those who work in an office setting. Meanwhile, more than forty per cent of these managers also expressed skepticism that remote workers can “stay motivated in the long term,” while a similar percentage had low confidence that they “can manage a team of remote workers.” America’s corporate workers could still get things done from home, but, at least from the managerial perspective, they weren’t necessarily doing so in a sustainable manner.

The problem with these beliefs is that many employees working for these skeptical managers have come to value a professional life that doesn’t involve long commutes synchronized to rigid hours. In response to Cook’s announcement, a group of Apple employees, organized on a Slack channel dedicated to “remote work advocates,” sent a letter complaining about the new policy. “Many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple,” they wrote. These are not isolated sentiments. A poll conducted by Morning Consult and Bloomberg News in May found that nearly forty per cent of U.S. adults would “consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.”

The imminent collision of these duelling perceptions creates a perilous economic moment. Our pandemic experiment with remote work has reset our expectations about where and when work takes place. At the same time, the early results of increased remote work appear to be mixed. It’s here that Best Buy’s experience might help. The ROWE program is not the exact same thing as the increased tolerance for remote work at the center of our current debate, but both approaches share a need to move work away from surveillance and toward measurable results. If we can better understand what, back in 2013, doomed Best Buy’s attempt to succeed with such a shift, we can better prepare for what lies ahead today.

When Hubert Joly cancelled ROWE, the move attracted its share of negative press. “The End of ‘Results Only’ at Best Buy is Bad News,” the headline of one such article, published in the Harvard Business Review, read. The author of the piece, Monique Valcour, describes ROWE as “innovative” and “celebrated,” highlighting research that indicates it makes employees happier and more productive. “Why on earth, then, would Joly cut this program?,” she asks, before concluding that the answer is one of corporate perception: Joly needed to project a “short-term ‘get tough’ mindset,” potentially with the objective of jolting investor confidence and thereby increasing the company’s stock price. Similar explanations are common for the emerging resistance to remote work in our current moment. Why bring workers back to the office? Many believe that it’s to satisfy the managerial desire to squeeze even more labor from exhausted employees.

Another common explanation for the stubborn persistence of in-person work is the preservation of a power hierarchy that’s comfortable for the managers at the top. Last fall, for example, an essay written by a former executive and coach named Raghu Krishnamoorthy for “The Future of Working,” a popular LinkedIn newsletter, explored the question of “why managers don’t like you working from home.” Krishnamoorthy argues that a big part of the answer is ego. “A ‘manager’ is as much a social construct as it is an organizational one,” he writes. “When work goes virtual, managerial status goes kaput . . . hierarchical symbols confer power and authority, implicitly rewarding the command-and-control style of management.”

As I talked to Jody Thompson about the rise and fall of ROWE at Best Buy, however, it became clear that neither of these popular explanations is enough to elucidate the demise of the program. The idea that ROWE was the kind of fluffy corporate initiative that could burden a company is countermanded by the finding that ROWE reduced voluntary turnover costs at Best Buy while also leading to measured increases in worker productivity. Meanwhile, the power-dynamic critique is weakened when you remember that ROWE grew in Best Buy often at the request of managers who asked for it to be implemented in their teams. “As the first teams started ROWE, other teams soon wanted it, too,” Thompson told me.

To really understand why ROWE sputtered at Best Buy, it’s helpful to look at one of the many other companies that also adopted a results-only work environment—but, unlike Best Buy, has stuck with the program. An example is WATT Global Media, a fifty-person business-media publishing firm based out of Rockford, Illinois. As the company’s C.E.O., Greg Watt, explained to me, his company shifted to ROWE around the same time that Best Buy abandoned it: in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The downturn caused WATT Global Media to restructure with a more digital strategy in mind. This required bringing on new employees with in-demand Web skills. “Me and my director of H.R. strategy looked at each other and asked, ‘How are we going to retain this great young talent?’ ” It was at this point that they encountered the story of ROWE and Best Buy in Daniel Pink’s 2009 book about the science of motivation, “Drive.” The thought of adopting ROWE scared them—“a combination of excitement and being very uncomfortable at the same time”—but they needed to try something if they were going to attract highly skilled employees to a small firm in a midsize Rust Belt city.

If you look at WATT Global Media today, you’ll see a company that has truly shifted from in-person surveillance to outcomes. The temporary closure of its office building in the spring of 2020, for example, had a minimal impact. “We really didn’t change much,” Watt told me. “We went about our business as before, because everyone was already allowed to work from wherever they felt they were most productive.” The return to the office after the pandemic has also been painless. Once public-health conditions allowed it, Watt reopened their building, sent out the relevant rules on mask wearing and social distancing, and that was that. If you thought that it would be useful to come into the office for something, you could. If you didn’t, then you didn’t need to. No policy shifts, no complex reëntry plans, no rebellions from unhappy employees. As Watt explained, this smooth reintegration makes him an outlier among the other business-publishing C.E.O.s that he knows: “They’re really struggling with this.”

The more I talked with Watt, the more a consistent explanation for the success of ROWE at his company emerged: training, lots and lots of training. This switch toward autonomous, outcome-focussed work was not accomplished with an e-mailed announcement of a new policy or the purchase of a new collaboration tool. Watt instead engaged Thompson and her consulting firm to run intensive training around the ideas developed during the original Best Buy experiments: the guideposts, the work-negotiation practice, the sludge-elimination strategy. At the end of the first month, Watt asked every employee to “do something scary,” like go to the movies in the middle of the workday, and then report back on it publicly.

The upfront training, however, was only part of the picture. To support the new culture, Watt put in place an onboarding program for every new hire, including asking them to read a book that Ressler and Thompson wrote about ROWE, to bring these employees up to speed on the company’s unusual approach to work. Watt also instituted regular training sessions with his managers, held on the second Tuesday of every month. They rotate who facilitates each session, which is structured as a combination of a formal curriculum and an open discussion, aimed at keeping the team in the proper results-focussed mind-set. They’ve been holding these meetings for close to a decade now. Watt intuited that the pull of the simpler, traditional approach to work was strong, requiring a constant application of energy to resist. “Training needs to be continual and with ongoing frequency,” he told me.

These details explain why ROWE languished at Best Buy. After Thompson and Ressler left the company, the financial crisis hit Best Buy hard (as it did many retailers), leading to cost-saving buyouts. Then, as the crisis abated, Best Buy began hiring new employees again. These new employees, however, were not part of the extensive ROWE sessions that Thompson and Ressler had optimized during the program’s long, organic rise at the company years earlier, and they instead brought with them the old way of working. In the absence of a commitment to onboarding and ongoing training programs, like those introduced by Greg Watt, the ROWE mind-set at Best Buy began to dissipate. As Thompson explained to me, radical new work cultures, like that instilled by ROWE, require almost everybody to commit for them to succeed. If some people are working the new way and some are working the old way, the latter will eventually dominate.

By the time Hubert Joly arrived at Best Buy, in 2012, ROWE was no longer a priority. With the supporting culture weakened, the program had been reduced to an increasingly superfluous policy, making it a logical target for elimination. I assumed that Thompson might have ill feelings toward Joly, given that he cancelled her flagship initiative, but, with the perspective of time, she does not. “He was a great C.E.O.,” she said. Having worked so long on the painstaking process of helping companies train the mind-set needed to support radically new ways of working, Thompson wasn’t surprised that ROWE was cancelled in an environment where that support had long since stopped.

The rise and fall of ROWE at Best Buy suggests a worrying aspect of our return to in-person work: the degree to which we’re focussed on policy. How many workers can be remote? Which days must you be in the office? How will compensation differ depending on your location? The central lesson of Best Buy and ROWE is that policy is the easy part. If you want to radically change when and where work happens in your organization while still achieving results, you also have to change the very definition of “work” itself, moving it away from surveillance and visible busyness, and toward defined outcomes and trust. A culture change of this magnitude requires that you retrain employees and managers at all levels, both in an intensive initial push and then in a regular fashion into perpetuity. And, even then, you’ll have to expect attrition. Greg Watt told me that his company lost about ten per cent of its staff in the transition to a results-focussed workflow. Some managers couldn’t abandon the idea that work meant sitting in an office, and some employees lacked the discipline to get work done on their own terms. “Not everyone is cut out for it,” he said.

Nothing about this style of transformation is easy, yet both sides of today’s debate over the future of work often assume it is. The remote-work advocates who criticized Tim Cook’s June announcement portray the way we dialed in from home during the pandemic as strictly positive, improving both well-being and work quality, without acknowledging the many issues experienced when offices emptied. Meanwhile, the remote-work skeptics among the managerial class are quick to interpret any hiccup in online productivity as clear evidence of the impossibility of breaking free from the gravitational pull of in-person collaboration.

Both sides are right, and both are wrong. Moving our professional efforts away from in-person surveillance and toward results not only makes remote work sustainable—it can also change the very nature of our jobs into something more enjoyable, and productive, and in tune with the unequal and unpredictable demands of life. Assuming that these benefits can be reaped with a simple policy change, however, is naïve. As is the instinct to cast this debate into a high-conflict configuration, with guileless heroes fighting off ego-driven managerial villains—which makes for good tweets but obstructs progress toward better workplace cultures. We must be clear about what’s really required to support a new normal in our professional lives and then ask honestly whether the effort required to fundamentally change how we work is worth the energy and attrition required. If we decide it is, then we should be prepared. As Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson learned at Best Buy, all those years ago, if we want to change the very nature of our work, we’ll have our work cut out for us.

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