I couldn’t help but feel a pang for all the lawyers (yes, a pang) when I read this passage in the much-blogged New York Times article, “The Falling-Down Professions” by Alex Williams:
At the Chicago office of Perkins Coie, partners recently unveiled a “happiness committee,” offering candy apples and milkshakes to brighten the long and wearying days of its lawyers.
That sure is nice, but I’m not sure yummy snacks can combat a 20% rate of depression and the annual mass exodus of burned-out associates. Ditto with Sullivan & Cromwell’s “groundbreaking” program encouraging partners to shower their underlings with “thank you” and “good work.” File under: putting lipstick on a pig.
As the piece argues, no number of “happiness committees” will halt the erosion in status of the once-venerable legal and medical professions—because their slide as the go-to careers is rooted in a deeper shift in how people think about success. While we still care about money, security, and mastery, we’ve come to put creativity, meaning, and freedom on the same plane (as a general rule—my sample doesn’t include Donald Trump).
Here’s where I’d take a different turn. While that is an absolutely vital value shift at work in our society today—and one that is a driving force behind the current golden age of entrepreneurship—I don’t think it signals the demise of one set of professions and the ascendancy of another (e.g hedge funds and private equity firms). Lawyers aren’t doomed (full disclosure: my excellent father is a lifelong, and excellent, lawyer), only certain firms and certain leaders.
The really interesting shift isn’t from one profession to the next, but from one way of thinking about the arc of a career and working life in general to the next. It goes something like this:
Old version: work hard (for a very long time), achieve success, earn freedom (to retire and do all the things you missed out on while you were working)
New version: find work that affords you freedom = success
I would argue that the organizations and leaders that find a way to build freedom (freedom from the time clock, freedom from the cube, freedom from the org chart, freedom to create) into work will be the winners in the future. Freedom is a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control; freedom is about what you can unleash. And, increasingly, freedom isn’t something you pay your dues to earn so much as a basic human right of all working adults. Sounds pretty obvious, but most organizations today would have to go to drastic extremes to make that a reality. And some are.
One of my favorite experiments in this realm, which has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention: Best Buy’s radical experiment in workplace flexibility, the ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) initiative. Created by two HR dynamos (I know, two words you rarely see in that close proximity), Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the program attacks head-on what most “alternative work arrangements” only tip-toe around: the fact that we’re literally laboring under a myth (namely, time put in + physical presence + elbow grease = RESULTS). Our assumptions about how work works, where we work, and when we work are relics of the industrial age. That’s not a new problem. ROWE finally addresses it.
The basic principle: people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Period. You can come in at 2pm on Tuesday. Leave at 3pm on Friday. Go grocery shopping at 10am on Wednesday. Take a nap or go to the movies anytime. Do your work while following your favorite band around the country. The ROWE “13 Commandments” say it all—here are a few:
–Work isn’t a place you go, it’s something you do.
–Employees have the freedom to work any way they want
–Every meeting is optional
–Nobody talks about how many hours they work
–No judgment about how you spend your time
This is radical stuff. So radical that Cali and Jody rolled ROWE out in several divisions over a couple years before fully briefing CEO Brad Anderson on the program (he’s now an enthusiast). Today, nearly all of the 4,000 headquarters employees are working in ROWE and there are plans for pilots among retail employees this year (which will be interesting to watch).
The results have been spectacular: an average 35% boost in productivity in divisions working in ROWE and a decrease in voluntary turnover by 52-90% depending on department. (Interestingly, involuntary turnover increased among ROWE workers—while it might seem like slacker paradise, shirkers have no place to hide when the only measure of work is results. What’s more, as the number of meetings fell, collaboration and teamwork improved.) Just as important, employee engagement and other “soft” metrics (like energy and hours of sleep and family time) went up significantly. Check out the fascinating study from University of Minnesota for more data on the links between freedom and accountability, productivity, happiness, and health.
You can read about ROWE on Cali & Jody’s excellent blog (and, soon, in their upcoming book Why Work Sucks And How to Fix It) and here . I feature ROWE in my ongoing series on “workplace revolutions” on CNN.
Lots of companies list “flextime” among their perks, what would it look like if they all added “absolute freedom”?PermaLink: Freedom = Success (And not the other way around)