Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Best Buy bombshell: Come back to the office

Published 06 March 2013 12:31, Updated 16 April 2013 11:00

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One of the biggest electronics retailers in the United States, Best Buy, has been comprehensively Yahoo-ed.

The retailer, which has been struggling with competition from internet sales and mega-stores, has ended its 18-year commitment to a Results-Only Work Environment - one of the biggest experiments in workplace flexibility in the world.

It is a decision that has devastated those in the flexible work “movement”, coming only days after the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, called all her telecommuters back to the office in an attempt to turn around the flagging IT company.

The Best Buy announcement on Monday (US time) is particularly worrying because its program - which allowed people to work where, when and how they liked - was regarded as a flagship.

Known as ROWE, the program linked the freedoms for its 4000 corporate office workers with a great deal of personal responsibility. Employees were kept to stringent performance agreements with their managers, while being trusted (as responsible adults) to decide how to structure their work so it would best benefit their employer and themselves.

Employees were evaluated solely on their performance, rather than time worked and office attendance.

While there is no doubt that both Yahoo and Best Buy are in trouble, critics of the back-to-the-office move argue that their strife has nothing to do with where or when the workers to their work.

According to one of the originators of the Best Buy program, Cali Ressler, ending flexibility is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

“Best Buy is sending a very clear mess they are more concerned with having a leadership team monitor their hallways instead of having a leadership team that excels at defining clear measurable results and holding people accountable for achieving those results,” she told Minnesota public radio.

Ressler’s consultancy CultureRx claims Rowe saved Best Buy $US2.2 million over three years by reducing staff turnover by 90 percent and boosting productivity by an average of 41 percent.

In both cases, Best Buy and Yahoo, the decision appears to be more about a knee-jerk reaction to assert control in a difficult situation.

Best Buy spokesman, Matt Furman, told the StarTribune. “Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

Ressler’s response: “Any sub-par leadership team can get all hands on deck. They can dictate hours, they can delegate tasks, they can brag about how much time they are putting in at the office. But, really, only true 21st century leadership has the ability to get everyone on point, especially at this time...”

Last week, Best Buy laid off 400 of its 4,0000 corporate employees in an attempt to save $US150 million in a $725 million cost-cutting program as it tries to build on what has been described as a “fragile” financial recovery, based on stronger than expected sales last quarter.

As it struggles with growing competition from internet sales, it has also weathered criticism for the quality of service at its stores, for its leadership, and its business strategy.

Furman says the company has not instituted an outright ban and managers will have the discretion to enable flexibility on an individual besis.

“But for the most part, the goal is to have employees in [the office] whenever possible.”

In a statement posted on their website, Ressler and her co-founder Jody Thompson (bother former Best Buy employees) say the decision to end ROWE is “unfortunate, if not downright silly”.

“While we agree that Best Buy must take drastic measures to turn their business around, moving back to a 20th century, paternalistic ‘command and control’ environment is most certainly not the answer.

“It’s our hope that the Best Buy leadership team quickly recognises that the managed-flexibility game is old news, and that organisations who will win in the 21st century will learn how to effectively manage the work, not the people.”

While it is undoubtedly not the intended effect, the cancelling of flexible work programs at Yahoo and Best Buy are being derided as a “War on Women”.

Mothers are the greatest beneficiaries of flexibility programs because of the difficulties of blending childcare responsibilities and job-unfriendly school hours with work.

In the US, 54 percent of women have jobs, and 71 percent of them are raiding children.

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