Time to Hug It Out With Flex Time

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Seems like flex time is on everyone’s mind these days. The current cover of BusinessWeek features the flexible work program at Best Buy (which I might point out was explored in a July 2005 TIME article, “Reworking Work,” by my colleague Jyoti Thottam). “Smashing the Clock,” shouts BizWeek’s headline. “No schedules. No mandatory meetings. Inside Best Buy’s radical reshaping of the workplace.”

Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Interestingly, the article leads with examples of men–I repeat, men–leaving their offices at the unmanly hour of 2 p.m. to attend matinees or go hunting. This is no accident, according to another article today, this one in the Wall Street Journal. Employers are trying to wipe out the stigma of flex time as a women’s issue by focusing on men:

Among the techniques companies are testing: highlighting successful men who have tapped flexible work arrangements; encouraging more employees to work from home part of the time; and promoting alternative career paths.

Ernst & Young is one such employer. Its internal promotional campaign stars male employees who dared to have a life and lived to tell the tale. One Rob McLeod, for instance, took paternity leave–and promptly got promoted.

From an employee’s standpoint, it’s hard to find fault with these corporate initiatives. I venture to guess there isn’t a working person alive who wouldn’t want more time for themselves. But it’s not just about time away from the office; it’s about control over the time we have to spend there. That, in a nutshell, is what’s so revolutionary about Best Buy’s program: it allows workers to build their own office schedules, leaving them responsible for meeting deadlines, managing staff and completing projects.

The fact is that face time still counts too much at too many offices. Here’s a survey released Dec. 7 from the staffing services company OfficeTeam:

More than three-quarters (76%) of executives said they attend to office duties at least a few times a week while on vacation; 33% said they conduct business every day when away from the office.

Mind you, those are the bosses. How are employees supposed to feel comfortable taking a laptop-free afternoon to attend Suki’s kindergarten holiday pageant–never mind a week at the Jersey shore–when their managers are Blackberrying away from the beach in Maui?

Chronic Blackberryitis is one symptom of an epidemic a recent report calls the “extreme job.” A staggering 1.7 million Americans work up to 70 hours a week, according to a report by The Center for Work-Life Policy published in this month’s Harvard Business Review–not because they have to but because they’re such incorrigibly high achievers. (My own boss is one of these: he Blackberried incessantly from jury duty, which I think ought to be illegal.)

I think employers like E&Y are on to something: this kind of extreme lifestyle does indeed have a macho undercurrent. But machismo isn’t relegated to men. The macho-est manager I know is a woman.

That same manager was macho enough to stalk into the big boss’s office a few years ago and declare she and other editors would be leaving–on a deadline day, no less!–to go trick-or-treating with their kids. Then she left.

Even at companies progressive enough to push flex time, it’ll take more than a glossy inhouse promo to make it work. It’ll take managers–male and female–with the kahonas to embrace it. Only then will we worker bees believe we can, too.