|Smashing The Clock|
No schedules. No mandatory meetings. Inside Best Buy's radical reshaping of the workplace
One afternoon last year, Chap Achen, who oversees online orders at Best Buy Co. (BBY ), shut down his computer, stood up from his desk, and announced that he was leaving for the day. It was around 2 p.m., and most of Achen's staff were slumped over their keyboards, deep in a post-lunch, LCD-lit trance. "See you tomorrow," said Achen. "I'm going to a matinee."
Under normal circumstances, an early-afternoon departure would have been totally un-Achen. After all, this was a 37-year-old corporate comer whose wife laughs in his face when he utters the words "work-life balance." But at Best Buy's Minneapolis headquarters, similar incidents of strangeness were breaking out all over the ultramodern campus. In employee relations, Steve Hance had suddenly started going hunting on workdays, a Remington 12-gauge in one hand, a Verizon LG (VZ ) in the other. In the retail training department, e-learning specialist Mark Wells was spending his days bombing around the country following rocker Dave Matthews. Single mother Kelly McDevitt, an online promotions manager, started leaving at 2:30 p.m. to pick up her 11-year-old son Calvin from school. Scott Jauman, a Six Sigma black belt, began spending a third of his time at his Northwoods cabin.
At most companies, going AWOL during daylight hours would be grounds for a pink slip. Not at Best Buy. The nation's leading electronics retailer has embarked on a radical--if risky--experiment to transform a culture once known for killer hours and herd-riding bosses. The endeavor, called ROWE, for "results-only work environment," seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours.
Hence workers pulling into the company's amenity-packed headquarters at 2 p.m. aren't considered late. Nor are those pulling out at 2 p.m. seen as leaving early. There are no schedules. No mandatory meetings. No impression-management hustles. Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do. It's O.K. to take conference calls while you hunt, collaborate from your lakeside cabin, or log on after dinner so you can spend the afternoon with your kid.
Best Buy did not invent the post-geographic office. Tech companies have been going bedouin for several years. At IBM (IBM ), 40% of the workforce has no official office; at AT&T, a third of managers are untethered. Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW ) calculates that it's saved $400 million over six years in real estate costs by allowing nearly half of all employees to work anywhere they want. And this trend seems to have legs. A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that 85% of executives expect a big rise in the number of unleashed workers over the next five years. In fact, at many companies the most innovative new product may be the structure of the workplace itself.
But arguably no big business has smashed the clock quite so resolutely as Best Buy. The official policy for this post-face-time, location-agnostic way of working is that people are free to work wherever they want, whenever they want, as long as they get their work done. "This is like TiVo (TIVO ) for your work," says the program's co-founder, Jody Thompson. By the end of 2007, all 4,000 staffers working at corporate will be on ROWE. Starting in February, the new work environment will become an official part of Best Buy's recruiting pitch as well as its orientation for new hires. And the company plans to take its clockless campaign to its stores--a high-stakes challenge that no company has tried before in a retail environment.
Another thing about this experiment: It wasn't imposed from the top down. It began as a covert guerrilla action that spread virally and eventually became a revolution. So secret was the operation that Chief Executive Brad Anderson only learned the details two years after it began transforming his company. Such bottom-up, stealth innovation is exactly the kind of thing Anderson encourages. The Best Buy chief aims to keep innovating even when something is ostensibly working. "ROWE was an idea born and nurtured by a handful of passionate employees," he says. "It wasn't created as the result of some edict."
So bullish are Anderson and his team on the idea that they have formed a subsidiary called CultureRx, set up to help other companies go clockless. CultureRx expects to sign up at least one large client in the coming months.
The CEO may have bought in, but there has been plenty of opposition inside the company. Many execs wondered if the program was simply flextime in a prettier bottle. Others felt that working off-site would lead to longer hours and destroy forever the demarcation between work and personal time. Cynics thought it was all a PR stunt dreamed up by Machiavellian operatives in human resources. And as ROWE infected one department after the other, its supporters ran into old-guard saboteurs, who continue to plot an overthrow and spread warnings of a coming paradise for slackers.
Then again, the new work structure's proponents say it's helping Best Buy overcome challenges. And thanks to early successes, some of the program's harshest critics have become true believers. With gross margins on electronics under pressure, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) and Target Corp. (TGT ) shouldering into Best Buy territory, the company has been moving into services, including its Geek Squad and "customer centricity" program in which salespeople act as technology counselors. But Best Buy was afflicted by stress, burnout, and high turnover. The hope was that ROWE, by freeing employees to make their own work-life decisions, could boost morale and productivity and keep the service initiative on track.
It seems to be working. Since the program's implementation, average voluntary turnover has fallen drastically, CultureRx says. Meanwhile, Best Buy notes that productivity is up an average 35% in departments that have switched to ROWE. Employee engagement, which measures employee satisfaction and is often a barometer for retention, is way up too, according to the Gallup Organization, which audits corporate cultures.
ROWE may also help the company pay for the customer centricity campaign. The endeavor is hugely expensive because it involves tailoring stores to local markets and training employees to turn customer feedback into new business ideas. By letting people work off-campus, Best Buy figures it can reduce the need for corporate office space, perhaps rent out the empty cubicles to other companies, and plow the millions of dollars in savings into its services initiative.
Phyllis Moen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who researches work-life issues, is studying the Best Buy experiment in a project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. She says most companies are stuck in the 1930s when it comes to employees' and managers' relationships to time and work. "Our whole notion of paid work was developed within an assembly line culture," Moen says. "Showing up was work. Best Buy is recognizing that sitting in a chair is no longer working."...