Best Buy's newest product -- worker satisfaction

Towards a sludge-free zone
When Culture Rx trains Best Buy employees to adopt the Results Only Work Environment, they fill this sludge can with strips of paper listing reasons why people believe they can't change their workplace habits.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Jeff Robles says in the past, when relatives came to town over the holidays, he'd stress about how to fit them into his work schedule.

"You couldn't plan anything," he says. "You hadn't seen them in years, and you're working. And now I'm not even thinking, 'I better figure out how I'm going to have time.' I know I'll have time."

Robles works in Best Buy's procurement division, which is taking part in the company's experiment with pushing flex time to new extremes.

The anti-sludge team
Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson work on a pitch to a Fortune 500 company. They say they're close to signing at least one company onto the Results Only Work Environment in the next few months.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Participating employees can do their work wherever and whenever they want, so long as they get it done. For some employees, the program means they can work at a laptop in bed, shop in the middle of the afternoon, then return to work at night.

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For Robles, it means being able to find time in his self-described workaholism to take a break in the middle of the day and help his daughter buy a car.

The new program comes from Culture Rx, a human resources think tank in Best Buy's headquarters.

Before co-founding Culture Rx, Jody Thompson was helping Best Buy implement a flex-time program. Thompson says the flex program had a lot of problems. First, "flex-time" employees -- mostly women -- felt singled out. Their colleagues would trash-talk them.

"An example of that would be, 'Boy, she got to leave at 4 o'clock again today; I sure wish I had kids,'" says Thompson.

Company policy- written on the walls
Best Buy's corporate headquarters espouses its workplace ethos on the walls in hallways.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Culture Rx's other founder, Cali Ressler, says even with flex time, workers still felt like they were being treated like children. They were told to be productive based on a clock that had nothing to do with when they felt the most creative or productive. And workers still didn't have options about where they could do their work; it had to still be in the cubicles, where managers could keep an eye on them.

"We realized employees were just going from one box of a traditional schedule to another box -- just another kind of schedule that puts confines around when and where work can get done," she says.

So Ressler and Thompson decided to throw out the notion of a schedule altogether. And they started a clandestine plan to get work teams at corporate Best Buy to adopt a "results only work environment" -- ROWE.

After three years of workers slowly shifting over to the program, about two-thirds of the corporate staff at Best Buy is now on ROWE. And the numbers keep rising.

The Culture Rx people say turnover among staff working with this new model has dropped from 11 percent to 8 percent. And productivity on ROWE teams is up by about 35 percent.

Jeff Robles
Best Buy employee Jeff Robles says in today's age of wireless technology, it's not necessary for employees to show up at a workplace and be chained to their desks.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

So Best Buy wins on a lot of fronts. And employees can now fulfill that universal ambition of doing a day's work without ever changing out of pajamas.

"The key paradigm shift is -- you're not at home. You're not at work. You're on the planet," says Jeff Robles.

He says with all the advancements in technology, it doesn't matter where employees work anymore -- or when. And he says being at work was never a guarantee that workers were actually getting something done.

"Just because I walk in this door doesn't mean I'm doing anything but maybe looking at a monitor, checking the Internet, looking at a cube, talking abut the last weekend. That's not productivity; it just means you're physically in one spot," Robles says.

Best Buy's Culture Rx team is now shopping the Results Only Work Environment model around to other Fortune 500 companies.

Jim Donahue with Hewitt Associates, a human resources consultancy, says corporate America has mostly taken a cautious approach to creative work arrangements. He says more than 20 percent of the corporate workforce telecommutes, but a lot of companies only offer the option to small groups of employees. Donahue thinks Best Buy's wide-scale foray could help move that along.

"A Fortune 100 employer doing this gives it a whole bunch of legitimacy, versus coming from a consultant or from an academic who says, 'This is a good thing,'" Donahue says.

Donahue adds that Best Buy seldom does anything quietly, so he expects to see the company sell the Results Only Work Environment program with the vigor of a holiday sale.