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When Dolly Parton sang ‘Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living, barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving’ in 1980, she shone a spotlight on the negative working practices that dominated the corporate world. Nearly 40 years down the line, the modern workplace is still haunted by the idea of ‘showing up’, with many businesses dictating the hours in which employees need to be at their desk. But as Bob Dylan sang 16 years earlier in 1964, ‘times, they are a-changin’.
The transition away from presenteeism into objective-based working has been especially pronounced in the last two decades, encouraged by an emphasis on increased work-life blend and a realisation that the 9-5 mould doesn’t necessarily fit all working styles.
Jody Thompson was one of the first to recognise that something wasn’t working: “The workplace as an institution is fundamentally broken and flexible work practices – which have been around for decades – are not a viable solution for the challenges faced in the contemporary workplace.”
Back in 2005, as a senior leader at American retail company, Best Buy, Jody partnered with Cali Ressler to create the Results-Only Work Environment™ (ROWE™), a management system that puts the employee in the driver’s seat.
“Each person is 100% autonomous (self-governing and independent) and 100% accountable (answerable to agreed-upon measurable results). Managers manage work, not people,” explains Jody.
It differs from flexi-working in that it relinquishes a manager’s control over an employee’s time and, as such, the labels ‘remote worker’ or ‘flextime worker’ don’t apply.
“If your job requires you to be at a certain place at a certain time and you don’t show up it’s a performance issue,” says Jody.
“Tardiness and absenteeism are artefacts of the old currency of work that rewards time and place over results.”
Re-writing the rule book
At its most basic, a ROWE allows employees and employers to establish measurable outcomes and work to achieve results, regardless of hours worked. It encourages continuous performance conversations, removing the need for a formal annual review and removes the idea of a 40- or 37.5-hour working week, with increased employee accountability and responsibility.
While it may sound too good to be true, the concept has been adopted by an ever-growing number of companies across a variety of sectors, including manufacturing, retail, accounting, insurance, banking, law, healthcare and advertising.
For those looking to move into this way of working, but perhaps more gradually, there are other options. At the less-extreme level sits a new way of thinking that dismisses work-life balance for a concept called work-life blend.
A shift in thinking
Anna Rasmussen is the CEO and founder of Open Blend, a software company that facilitates this concept for businesses. Whilst working as a leadership coach, Anna was struck at how negative it felt to talk about work/life balance.
“Eight years ago, I started hearing repeatedly over and over again this notion of work-life balance and how it was in fact holding people back,” she explains.
“It was creating a really negative mindset as people found they were trying to balance two opposing sides of their life but couldn’t reach their potential.”
Off the back of this discovery, Anna made it her mission to create an alternative way of approaching this. She asked her clients to populate an eight-part circle with the things that were most important to them. She called this their Blend, and the concept transformed the conversation.
“Quite simply, the difference between the two concepts is that one is an empowering mindset and the other is a limiting mindset,” Anna says.
“Blend implies that you can have a number of different things that you’re focusing on in your life and you can focus on them all at the same time to some degree, whereas balance is two sides, and they are opposing, so when one goes up the other one goes down.”
She believes this transition from balance to blend is due to the changing nature of society as a whole: “The world that we live in has changed. With the rise of technology, we now live in this 24/7 culture, where there is an expectation that you are “on” the whole time. But the reality is that everybody in the workplace now has a blend, everyone has additional responsibilities.”
At its most basic, Open Blend facilitates coaching-led one-to-ones between a manager and their direct report. These take place on a regular and ongoing basis, but do not need to be long official performance review meetings. The areas of focus are wellbeing, work/life blend and performance, encapsulating the entire employee experience.
“An individual chooses eight elements out of a menu of 28 that are most important to them across work and life. It can be things like effective teams, career progression, making a difference at work, health and exercise and quality time with the kids,” explains Anna.
“They then have to score how fulfilled they are right now versus where they need to be in order to reach their potential on each one. It creates a gap. The tool then supports the manager and the talent to have a conversation about what needs to happen to close that gap.”
Depending on the needs of the individual, this may include increased flexible working, additional professional development or an opportunity to receive a performance-focused bonus, for example.
Recognising culture fit
While both ROWE and Open Blend continue to increase in popularity, both Jody and Anna agree that businesses have a while to go in being culture-ready.
“The biggest challenge lies in the shift in mindset and practice from manager to Results Coach,” explains Jody.
“ROWE requires a complete shift in mindset – the mindset of each individual in the organisation, along with the adoption of new behaviours that do not align in any way to the current institution (culture).”
Anna believes culture is incredibly important to the success of a system like Open Blend: “It is important to support people to leave their comfort zone and start to have conversations about the whole person.”
“Some organisations aren’t quite ready for Open Blend. They don’t yet recognise the importance of being a true ‘people business’ and supporting the whole person. In our opinion something like 30% of the UK market is actually culture-ready and ready to innovate their working practices.”
However, as employees continue to demand more from their employers, Anna expects this to change: “Right now, you’ve got a modern workforce that are demanding cultures that acknowledge blend and are demanding employment at businesses that enable them to bring their whole selves to work.”
“Businesses that don’t acknowledge it now, absolutely will do. With attrition at an all-time high, employers need to be doing more to retain and support their talent. In essence, they are not going to attract the best talent and they aren’t going to hold onto them because the talent will go to an organisation where they can bring themselves to work.”
On the way out
With such strides being made, it appears the days Dolly sang about are coming to an end. From integrating a system like Open Blend, to revamping organisational structure through ROWE, businesses looking to win the attraction and retention war must now consider alternative means of management.
This piece is the eighth in the series: ‘Make your working life exceptional: a guide to creating a better workplace.’ Read part one about mental health, part two about flexible working, part three about workplace design, part four about diversity, part five about employee engagement, part six about the future of work and part seven about closing the gender pay gap.