Daffodils (2007)


March 26, 2007 at 3 PM

On Doing Work Versus Being At Work

Netflix, the American DVD-by-mail service, gives its employees as many vacation days as they want. It sounds almost scandalous, doesn’t it? Employees don’t even need to ask — managers simply don’t keep track of vacation days at all. Nor do they worry much about tardiness and sick leave. Instead, employees are given responsibility to get their work done…period.

I think the reason most companies don’t operate this way is that they’re afraid of the proverbial bad eggs. If a few employees take an unreasonable amount of vacation, other people who work hard will feel resentful. In addition, the 9 to 5 culture in Western society is so strong that most of us take it for granted that others who regularly stroll in late or who leave early are all lazy slackers.

Really, all of this begs the point: most companies give their employees too much time to accomplish their work. Managers expect people to “be working” but there is almost zero incentive to work really hard for long because then you end up twiddling your thumbs. We all “secretly” waste time checking our personal email, chatting at the water cooler, lingering at the copier. Of course, not everyone works at the same speed — some people need more time to do the same amount of work. And there are many jobs where there is high pressure to finish tasks quickly. But even those are usually go–go–stop affairs — there is always the calm after the storm.

The way I see it, there are two ways of running a company. The prevailing method is that you pander to your lowest common denominators — the people who take a long time to get their work done. People who work faster are effectively punished by being chained to their desks, but it all feels very democratic — everyone gets the same amount of official vacation time. The extremely rare alternative is that you forget about clocks, forget about a sanctioned lunch hour, and simply tell people they need to get their work done and, if necessary, get it done by a certain point. If they finish the task quickly, then they’ve earned a free pass for leisure time, a rather powerful incentive to work hard. Why more companies don’t operate this way is truly mystifying to me.

I used to work at a very large institution that, like every other very large institution, had very strictly-defined rules about vacation time, short-term disability leave, sick days, lunch breaks, mid-shift breaks, blah blah blah, etc. etc. After I worked there for awhile, I realized that my manager never said anything to anyone about how long their lunch breaks were. Nor did anyone seem to keep track of how many vacation days I’d taken so far. Funnily enough, everyone still got their work done, and our department felt extremely relaxed, especially when I compared my experience to others’ in other departments.

There is a problem with this laisser-faire policy of course — it puts the onus on you as a manager to hire people that are intelligent and efficient. Good staff are hard to come by. The part missing from that story about Netflix is where they talk about their hiring policy. Yet I can’t help feeling that a relaxed manager breeds a relaxed workplace. Strict rules breed fear and contempt, and, worse, may destroy the very thing most companies would die to have — loyalty from their workers.

Previously: Dabble in the Commons
Subsequently: Keeping Americans Safe