Build Back a Better Workplace

June 9, 2021

With any crisis comes opportunity. The crisis of COVID-19 provides the opportunity to take what we’ve learned and make appropriate changes to build back a better workplace. A way to do this is by becoming more focused on tasks, strengthening our work relationships, and embracing a work ethic based on results.

Companies—large and small—around the world were challenged during the past 16 months in order to stay afloat. Many, especially in retail and hospitality, were unable to make it and had to shut down either temporarily or for good. Others were able to utilize technology and many were able to work remotely alongside children, who were learning remotely.

Regardless, while productivity may have been relatively stable for many of these companies, in the long run, we’ll need to find a way to come together again in the same physical space—at least occasionally. That’s because things like creativity, innovation and a sense of belonging are vital and more likely to occur when we are together in the same room.

The workplace may have been forever changed by this pandemic. In many industries, it may no longer be necessary to come into the office every day. Employers may therefore require less office space while employees may need a home office. Once children are back in school again, parents may be much more effective working from home than when they were sharing space and bandwidth with others.

When we do return to the same physical space, it will be important to incorporate the good that came from those who were able to work effectively from home. Here are some things to consider.

Focus on task at hand

One of the first things employers discovered was that many employees actually became more productive while working from home. Though the initial transition may have been challenging to some, others were able to find focus without the disruption that can be so rampant in the office. It may have taken awhile before back-to-back meetings and continual interruptions interrupted our workday again. Though family members, pets and other interruptions may have replaced them, many may have found a way to better focus such as:

  • Maintain control over your time. Strategic thinking, completing a complex assignment, researching a new methodology, learning a new technology and many other things require focus. Take control of your schedule to guard your time.
  • Cut down on task switching. When you allow emails, text messages, Slack, news alerts, phone calls, etc. to interrupt what you’re doing, they greatly impact your ability to focus. Reject multitasking as it is completely counter to effectively focusing.

Strengthen relationships

When we become slaves to our technologies rather than simply treat them as tools, we became more disengaged from each other. No matter what social media companies say, when you choose to spend time interacting with a screen instead of a person, you are creating distance. When you can safely return to the office, do what you can to strengthen your real time relationships with co-workers.

  • Talk in person whenever possible. Rather than message someone down the hall, deliberately choose to interact face-to-face. This will build trust and rapport much better than any electronic substitute.
  • Help make your team more effective. Things like psychological safety, trust and a shared sense of purpose and belonging are critical to high performing teams. Do your part to optimize your teamwork.

Embracing ROWE

In many cases remote work meant managers could no longer micro-manage their workers. Overly oppressive bosses needed to let go of controlling how the work got done. While this could have been taken advantage of, many workers demonstrated just how effective they were in completing the work while unencumbered by an overly watchful eye. Results Only Work Ethic (ROWE) is all about what you deliver and not necessarily how or where you do it. To maintain agency over how and when you do the work, keep in mind the following:

  • Complete what you say you’ll do. It’s quite simple that when you can be trusted to complete your work on time and accurately, others will likely provide more latitude for how and where the work gets done. Do your part to follow through on tasks.
  • Allow your results to dictate your performance. Don’t look for excuses or others to blame when you are unable to complete your work. Take responsibility for what is yours and focus on achieving results that demonstrate your value.

Going back to the office can be a source of renewed engagement. It can bring about changes that enhance your experience. See if you can adapt how you show up so you contribute to building back a better place to work.   

Working Smarter in the Age of Distraction

July 19, 2017

We live in a world of constant distraction. The internet, text messaging and social media all play a part in this distraction and yet we willingly choose to let these interruptions keep us from fully engaging in our lives.

This is true not only in our free time, but in our workday as well. Employees are often getting sidetracked from the task at hand thereby undermining overall productivity.

According to a 2012 survey by, one of the biggest culprits is internet surfing. The survey interviewed 3,200 people and found that more than two-thirds of employees regularly spend time surfing websites unrelated to work.

Specifically, 64 percent of employees say they visit non-work related websites every day. Of this group, 39 percent spend an hour or less per week, 29 percent two hours per week, 21 percent five hours per week, and three percent said they waste 10 or more hours each week doing activities online that are unrelated to their job.

Unsurprisingly, social media is the biggest destination for this distraction as the most off-task websites were Facebook (41 percent) and LinkedIn (37 percent). A full 25 percent admitted to shopping on Amazon during work hours.

While this is disturbing, it’s important to remember that not so long ago employees were mindlessly playing Solitaire as a way to escape and avoid working. Before that, personal calls, extended cigarette breaks, long lunches, and water cooler gossip kept employees from being optimally productive.

Respondents from the survey said the number one reason for this slacking at work was that they don’t feel challenged enough in their job. This was followed by they work too many hours, the company doesn’t give sufficient incentive to work harder, they are unsatisfied with their career (might explain why they are on LinkedIn), and they’re just bored.

Based on these justifications for internet surfing, it seems both employers and employees need to find ways to reduce this distraction and begin working smarter. So let’s take a look at each of the reasons individually.

Employees don’t feel challenged enough in their jobs

Underutilized resources are a problem that employers need to recognize and quickly correct. Granted some tasks are not very challenging and perhaps boring, but every job should also have opportunities for learning and developing new skills that can be stimulating and help raise employee engagement. Employees should make known where their interest and aptitude match an unmet need within the scope of their current position, and employers should provide opportunities for every employee to grow beyond the current position.

Employees are working too many hours

This seems like a lame excuse as if just being in the office means you are “working” too much. If employees can work smarter by being more productive during the workday and avoid distractions, it won’t be necessary to work too many hours. Employers need to own their part as well by implementing ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) as a way to measure productivity by results rather than simply the time employees are seated in their cubicles.

Company doesn’t provide enough incentive to work harder

The word “incentive’ may be code for an extrinsic reward in the form of compensation. While this could be the case, employees should take responsibility by demonstrating greater value in order to receive a promotion or raise. Employers should also find ways to incentivize employees with both intrinsic (corporate values, teamwork, etc.) and extrinsic (recognition, bonuses, etc.) forms of engagement.

Employees are unsatisfied with their career

The distraction of internet surfing during work hours should be a sign that you as an employee should take ownership of your situation and do something about it. If you are unsatisfied in your current position, you might consider applying for another opportunity either inside or outside of your organization. This may require further training or perhaps informational interviews about an entirely different career. Employers should also be on the lookout for dissatisfaction among employees by checking in regularly and providing them with the direction and support needed to keep them engaged.

Employees are bored

This also is about engagement as a fully engaged employee is not likely to be bored. Employees need to apply themselves and take ownership of what they can do within the scope of their job to make it interesting. Employers can also ensure that boring tasks are distributed among all employees so no one person is stuck doing something boring all day and every day.

The distractions are not going away and I suspect if the same survey were done today we would see an increase in all of these numbers. How we respond to these distractions is what matters.

Working smarter means employees take responsibility for optimizing their time at work and not wasting it being unproductive. Working smarter means employers provide the opportunities and support so their people feel appreciated, stimulated, and adequately incentivized to give their best.

While there will always be opportunities to escape from the task at hand, it is up to both employees and employers to find ways to encourage higher engagement so that distractions are less enticing to begin with.

Rethinking the Role of Manager

December 4, 2012

Does your boss often get in the way of helping you be more productive? This is not entirely his or her fault as many organizational structures are based on an outdated incentive mentality that can actually be detrimental in today’s workplace.

The workplace has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Secretaries are scarce, the metallic sound of office machinery is replaced by electronic tones of pagers and cell phones, and—rather than conversing around the water cooler—we are more likely to be texting or using social networks as a way to interact with others.

How we manage other people, however, has remained the same.

The role of manager varies depending on the industry and nature of the work, but when it comes to supervising others, there is very often conflict and disharmony.

In a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Value of Bosses” by Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn L. Shaw and Christopher T. Stanton, supervisors were found to have an enormous impact—good or bad—on productivity.

Among their findings, nearly 75% of all employees say their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job. And 65% of employees say they would take a new boss over a pay raise.

The same study determined it is not what these bosses do, but what they don’t do that makes them so bad. This includes 1) failing to inspire; 2) accepting mediocrity; 3) lacking clear vision and direction; 4) inability to be collaborate and be a team player; 5) failing to walk the talk.

It turns out that the best bosses are actually teachers, and the report stated that teaching accounts for 67% of a boss’s effect on employees’ productivity.

What if your manager was focused on teaching and encouraging your intrinsic motivation to enable you to be more productive and happier in the process?

Too often motivation throughout many companies is based on the carrot and stick approach. For all but a very few types of manufacturing jobs or those requiring mechanical skills, however, this approach has been scientifically proven not to work. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to productivity.

So why is there so much time and money spent on extrinsic incentives in order to get employees to work harder? Extrinsic incentives include things like a high salary, bonus, stock options, and generous benefits, which are often what attract employees in the first place. However, it is the intrinsic incentives such as interesting work, flexible time on when and where to do the work, ROWE or results only work ethic, 20% time to follow interests, etc. that keep employees motivated and highly productive.

According to author Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation is absolutely required and his model includes three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives; mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters; and purpose is the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.

Workers today face challenges that require right-brained, creative, and/or conceptual thinking. This “outside the box” thinking cannot be incentivized through conventional external means, but instead requires internal motivation.

Intrinsic nature means the job’s core responsibilities and you’re being paid to do something you find satisfying, says Timothy Judge, Mendoza’s Franklin D. Schurz Professor of Management.

After conducting a hundred job-satisfaction studies, Judge says he’s never found one where the intrinsic nature of the work itself wasn’t the most important predictor of overall job satisfaction.

So what if a manager’s role was not to incentivize, scold, or threaten those he or she manages, but instead to teach, inspire, and support the employee’s need for autonomy, mastery and purpose? This new role for manager would look a lot more like a coach, mentor or teacher who is in service of raising the level of productivity of others.

In this way the workplace could be less hostile and more cooperative, less competitive and more collaborative. Managers could contribute to the workplace environment in a way that creates higher employee engagement and greater productivity. And that would be good for any organization.

Is ROWE the Best Form of Employee Engagement?

March 27, 2010

Employee engagement initiatives should not be considered fuzzy, feel good opportunities merely to improve job satisfaction and employee retention. Instead, they should be seen as a business strategy for achieving increased productivity.

Fully engaged employees can indeed deliver higher productivity, but what engages one employee does not necessarily do much for another. That’s why things like flextime, telecommuting, concierge services and other benefits help, but don’t necessarily contribute directly to the bottom line.

Unlike other work/life balance programs, ROWE is a business strategy that can positively impact the bottom line while at the same time stimulate employee engagement.

ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) is a human resource management strategy created by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler and first implemented at Best Buy in 2003. Using ROWE, 80% of Best Buy’s corporate staff now come and go as they please as long as the work gets done on time.

The premise of ROWE is that employees are paid for results rather than hours worked. This provides both freedom for employees and results for employers. ROWE is based on the assumption that employees will do more and better work when given the latitude to decide how and when it is done.

Unlike flextime, ROWE is employee controled not management controled. ROWE requires accountability and clear goals, while flextime requires policies and guidelines. ROWE has unlimited options and is fluid, while flextime has limited options and ultimately is inflexible. Most importantly, ROWE is based on the work and not the hours.

The concept of ROWE is a bit like college where you decide when and where to study and write papers. In most workplaces today, employees are treated more like grade schoolers with strict policies on when to show up, where to sit, how to do the work and when to leave. No wonder recent graduates become disillusioned when entering the “real world.”

Now that aging Baby Boomers are mixing with Generations X and Y, it seems a perfect time to initiate a different approach to how work is performed. We certainly have the technology (teleconferencing, emailing, text messaging, and cell phone calling) to extend the workplace location and flexibility on when to do the tasks. Now it’s just a matter of will.

ROWE is not an entirely new concept. Piece work, where workers are paid a fixed rate for each unit produced or action performed, has been around for more than a century. And then there is performance-rated pay, where money is paid directly on how well a worker performs in the workplace. Commission-based sales is a form of this type of compensation.

High technology companies have been tinkering with alternative concepts for some time. At IBM, 40% of employees have no official office. Sun Microsystems allow nearly half of their employees to work anywhere they want. Google offers their engineers the ability to spend a full day each week working on side projects to pursue their own interests. In a typical year, more than half of Google’s offerings, including Gmail and Google News have come during this 20 percent time opportunity.

ROWE builds upon these and other models to provide employees with more opportunities to do the job their own way and this can lead to greater employee engagement and higher productivity.

But ROWE is not without it’s challenges. Measuring output for some jobs (overhead, administration) can be very difficult. Some people have a hard time working with others if they are not face-to-face. And overall management can be challenging.

Nevertheless, ROWE is proving to be effective returning an average of 35% increase in productivity while reducing voluntary turnover by as much as 90%. In addition, research by the Flexible-Work and Well Being Center at the University of Minnesota found that more ROWE employees than comparable employees:

  • Have greater organizational commitment
  • Report higher job satisfaction
  • View the culture as family friendly
  • Report increased job security

And fewer ROWE employees than comparable employees:

  • Do low-value work
  • Experience interruptions at work
  • Feel pressure to work overtime

Some successful examples of ROWE implementations can be found in retail corporate offices (Gap Outlet, Best Buy), financial services (JA Counter & Associates), and non-profit (Girl Scouts of America in San Gorgonio County of California).

Implementing ROWE as a sound business strategy can provide many benefits. Employees gain the freedom to do the job their own way, which leads to greater job satisfaction, better work/life balance, and higher productivity. Employers are better able to separate performers from non-performers, attract more talented people, and increase their bottom line.

What is your opinion of ROWE? Is this something you and your organization could benefit from?

Mark Craemer