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Is that 8 to 5 Workday Still Best?

By Mary Lloyd

When workers were on an assembly line, being in the same place at the same time to get the job done was essential. But now, most of us deal in knowledge, and we have an incredible array of communication tools for staying connected. Letting go of the idea that people all have to work where-and when--you do might be the smartest thing you ever do to gain a competitive advantage.

The 8 to 5 workday has been around for close to a century. That very fact should make us ready to give it some scrutiny, but the opposite seems to be the case-we hold it as sacred as a Brahma cow in Calcutta. Maybe we are willing to let people flex to some extent…come in a bit late when the little one misses the school bus or work from 9 to 6 on a regular basis. But giving people room to work when it works best for them isn't in the picture.

In a knowledge-based work endeavor, having people all gathered in the same place for the same period of time may actually be counterproductive. Why? Because we don't all think best at the same time. Worse, when we aren't in our own sweet spot, we tend to deny someone else their best work time with unnecessary meetings, dropping by to "check up" on something, or encouraging them to be part of "social time."

This old model of how the work should be shaped is badly in need of an overhaul. And one of the things to gain by doing that is the continued interest of older, highly skilled workers with unique knowledge who might otherwise walk out the door into retirement so they can have more flexibility.

It's easy to say "yes but" with this idea. "Yes, but then we couldn't do the sales meeting every Monday morning and that's essential to planning the week's work for everybody…" Really? Or is it just a chance to you to do some rah rah and act like the big cheese? "Yes but that won't work for us because we have highly integrated teams who have to be able to check with each other on a moment's notice…" Right. And you can't do that by cell phone?

Much of what keeps us from giving people real flexibility in their jobs is the fear they will abuse the "privilege." From what Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson report in Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, this concern is totally unfounded. At Best Buy, where they pioneered the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), productivity actually improved when people were given the chance to do it whenever and wherever they wanted.

This makes sense. People tend to rise to the level of trust given them. Having people do their work however they choose as long as it gets done on time and as promised is a contract between two adults. Expecting a worker to be at the office for a specific period of time every weekday is more of a parent/child relationship. Kids act up when mom and dad aren't watching. Adults get on with what they have to get done.

Changing to a more results oriented work effort doesn't have to be an all or nothing thing (much as the ROWE gurus insist you do it that way). If you want to see how it might work, try it with some of your most experienced superstars in lieu of "retirement."

Give them room to do the things they've dreamed of doing (whether it's taking a class mid-day or working from Tucson for the winter) without totally cutting the cord on the work they love to do and are so good at. Then pay attention to the results.

That's part of the reason why we cling to the 8 to 5 thing, I suspect. It's really easy to confirm someone's at the office. It takes a more complex effort to be sure the work is actually done. But effective management is about results. If every single person you employ has perfect attendance but you aren't getting the work done, you and the company aren't going to be around long.

Coming up with unique "ROWE-like" arrangements for the talent you want to keep that's old enough to retire is a way to test the waters. See what happens on that small scale. Then reconsider what you thought you knew about how essential that traditional workday is. You might end up expanding the program to the entire workforce.

At a minimum, coming up with a broader set of options for how you shape the work of a given job might keep some of your best talent on board longer. But it might take you even farther--it might be the bridge to becoming the "employer of choice" for the best of the best for workers of all ages.