The Changing Nature of "Work"

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Brian Halligan
Brian Halligan



Here are some thoughts of mine and others on how technology is enabling businesses to fundamentally change the nature of how they "work" to unlock productivity gains in their partners and employees.

BusinessWeek Article on BestBuy
I read this interesting article called "smashing the clock" in BusinessWeek about BestBuy's corporate-wide ROWE Program which stands for Results Only Work Environment.  Here's the way BestBuy describes what ROWE means to them:  "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."

Phyllis Moen, a University of Minnesota professor studying BestBuy 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."

On the one hand, it is fascinating to me how technology has enabled a company to change the work habits that have been relatively stable for several generations.  On the other hand, it is fascinating to me why it is taking so long for other companies to take advantage of standard technologies to do the same thing.

B. Ray Ozzie's Thoughts On "Work"
As some of you probably know, I worked for Ray Ozzie for four years at Groove Networks -- he is the gentleman taking over Bill Gates position as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft.  Ray is a most interesting guy.  He has a unique combination of skills that make him a highly effective human being.  One of his unique skills is that he is a bit of a social anthropologist.  He spends a lot of time thinking about the way people work and how the way people work is affected by emerging network technologies.  It is that ability that led him to build Lotus Notes in the 1980's where he "groked" the emerging networking standards and built a platform that transformed the way workers interacted (email, collaborative databases).

A major influencer on Ray was Ronald Coase , a Nobel Prize winning economist who wrote a seminal article called "The Nature of The Firm" in 1937 that talked about the changing sizes of firms and the changing interfaces between firms.  Coase described how these boundaries changed as a function of "transaction costs" which Ray referred to as "costs of coordination" between firms.  He argued the decision on whether to "contract" out for a good/service was a function of not only the cost of the good, but other factors including the costs associated with finding vendors, bargaining costs, the risk associated with keeping trade secrets, etc.  Ray argued that the improvement in networking technology fundamentally lowered the cost of coordination between firms in a way that over time would tend to increase the overall number of firms and decrease the number of very large firms.  Much of what is going on with outsourcing in India and other developing nations can be described using Coase's theorums with technology being the secret sauce that is lowering the barriers to outsourcing.

When reading the BusinessWeek article and reflecting on the changing nature of work, I thought a bit about our business and how different in nature our work pattern was from my father's work pattern throughout his career.  He put in a good 60 hours a week for his whole career, including a trip into the office most Saturday mornings to catch-up on things.  Here are a few of the ways in which we are unique relative to the traditional US concept of work.

Our company currently has three full-time employees based in Cambridge, two contractors in Cambridge, and three overseas contractors located in two countries.  With regard to our three overseas developers, none of us has ever actually spoken to any of them on the phone or met them -- all email and instant messaging.  Despite having never spoken to them, I feel I know them pretty well (one in particular) and that each of them has a certain personality.

We have an office in Cambridge with room for all of us and are free to use it every day.  Despite that, we only go into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays and maybe one other day if those two days are too packed or a customer call warrants it. 

The three full-time employees (Dharmesh, Patrick, & I) all happen to be night owls.  We all tend to have our highest productivity hours after noon on any given day.  Therefore, our office time on Tuesdays and Thursdays start at noon.  On Tuesdays, we generally stay in the office until around 2am. 

When we are in the office, we do not work in cubicles or offices, we all work in a large conference room facing each other.  I often will write a list of things we need to get done on a whiteboard at the beginning of the session.  We tend to bring each item up, talk about the item, do a bit of research, talk about it some more, make a decision, and move on to the next one. 

From a work/privacy perspective, our environment is kind of interesting.  Most companies of our size have either five cubicles or five offices clustered together where people work 40+ hours a week in their office/cubicle.  This type of work environment is rather restrictive in terms of privacy all of the time.  My personal work environment is about 45 hours a week working alone (and via email/telephone) and 20 hours a week working with no privacy -- sitting around a table with my co-workers able to see and hear my every move.  It is not for everyone, but I think I get a ton more done by having a lot of privacy to think hard for most of my week and no privacy for part of my week vs. limited privacy the entire week. 

I am sure we will have to change some of this as we bring on additional employees with more traditional schedules, but in general I think that modern technology has enabled our company to work in a way that makes us all as productive as possible without the confines of rush hours, long commutes, nosey cubicle neighbors, etc.

As many of you regular readers have probably figured out by now, the SB2.0 blog is mainly about how to deploy internet technology and strategy in ways to grow your business profitably, primarily around the area of marketing.  This article was a bit off topic, but I hope it was interesting.  If you have some stories about the way your company "works" that you think are best practices, please do share them with us and the rest of our readers...  If you really like this topic, I recommend you read Tom Malone's book on "The Future of Work" -- he was one of my professors at Sloan and thinks deeply about this stuff.

-- Brian Halligan.


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