For many years, we’ve been surprised when companies freak out about things like personal web surfing at work or how companies used new technologies to simply take over larger amounts of an employee’s non-work time, rather than better balancing their work-life balance. The key in all of this is that if people are productive and getting their work done, does it really matter if they’re surfing the web occasionally at work? Among many tech companies (especially young ones), this seems like the natural state of being, and many have no problems with more flexible work programs. However, for more traditional companies, the idea is apparently still foreign. Business Week has a cover story this week about how Best Buy has completely changed their corporate environment, embracing an exceptionally chaotic plan to let people do whatever they want whenever they want. This means if people only want to work nights, they can. If they want to leave in the middle of the day to watch a movie, that’s great. If they want to work from home or a coffee shop or a fishing boat, that’s perfectly fine. No meetings are mandatory. All that matters is whether or not people get their jobs done. Living in Silicon Valley, this doesn’t sound too out of the ordinary, but it seems more fitting for companies that grow up that way, and before “experienced” managers come in and put more processes in place. However, Best Buy figured out a way to not just implement it widely, but they did it from the bottom up, not even letting the CEO in on the fact that much of the company had embraced the idea until about two years after it began.
It will be interesting to see how well this goes over long term. While the article quotes lots of people talking about the productivity gains that came from the switch, it’s not always easy to tell if it’s because of this change, or just because there was a change. In other words, just the fact that the usual grind changed, could bump up productivity — but if the new method becomes “the grind,” changing back could be just as effective. However, part of what this really highlights is that companies often judge productivity by the wrong measures — such as hours at a desk. If you want a system like this to really focus on productivity, there needs to be a clear (and correct) understanding of what productivity actually means for the workers at that company.