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Gill Blog

Monday, September 06, 2004

Saying Goodbye to the Factory Model of Work

I received an interesting email from a friend who responded to my last post on teleworking. The body of the message was brief and to the point: "This might interest you." I took one look, and agreed. It was a brief piece about changing work patterns and in it the author uses the example of Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco. In the piece, the author quotes Semler:

"Anyone who can eliminate the stress of an overbooked schedule, arrange a workweek to sleep according to biorhythms rather than a time clock and enjoy a sunny Monday on the beach after working through a chilly Sunday, will be a much more productive worker. It will ultimately benefit organizations because employees will find equilibrium in their professional, personal and spiritual lives. This isn't just an avant-garde approach to running a company. It's a sound strategy for business success and gaining competitive advantage."
This was closely aligned to the teleworking discussion we have been carrying on for some time now. In our approach, however, we tend to tie teleworking to technology or risk mitigation as opposed to discussing the obvious lifestyle benefits. This bit stimulated my interest, and I had to find out more about Mr. Semler.

As I discovered, he has successfully transformed the theory of flexible work patterns into practice, and 25 years after committing himself to this approach, it has yielded a substantial return on investment.
Semco's revenues have jumped from $35 million to $212 million in the last six years, and the firm grew from several hundred employees to 3,000—with employee turnover of about 1 percent
His management theories might seem radical to some CEOs who generally tend to subscribe to a more textbook approach to management, but Semler dismisses such traditional approaches wholeheartedly. When CNN asks whether he thinks management is more an art or a science, he says:

"More an art. The scientific, technical aspect is basically secondary. The graduate schools have difficulties keeping up with the times because they consider it too much of a science."
He raises even more eyebrows when he first debunks the whole notion of "career opportunities" as being artificial, and then points out the great disservice many employers do to their enterprises by treating employees like kids. These views are cited in this interview he gave to CIO Insight:

"Basically, most career opportunities are fraudulent. The idea that I will hire you, I will train you, I will want to know where you want to be in five years, and then I will give you that better job is totally out of the question."

"...when you start treating employees like adolescents by saying that you can't come late, you can't use this bathroom — that's when you start to bring out the adolescent in people."
Semler, who graduated from the Harvard Business School at the age of 20 to take over the family business in Brazil, provides some of his insights in this audio interview (definitely worth a listen), where he discusses his most recent book, The Seven-Day Weekend. In the context of our discussion, his views suggest that one way in which teleworking can be rolled out more effectively is for managment to make some fundamental changes.

The old model that assumes that the only way in which employees can be productive is to have a manager standing over them, has to be completely reworked. Effective management has to ultimately recognize that performance is not necessarily measured by "time at the desk", but simply by fulfilling a pre-determined list of deliverables. Location and schedules effectively become irrelevant.


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