​What It's Like When Your Job Actually Treats You Like an Adult

I've worked a fast food drive-thru, waited tables, baked bread, slogged it out in corporate copyediting, worked at an alt-weekly, juggled freelance, and this one time I worked at a Ponderosa for three days. Looking back, only two of those jobs offered adult-like working conditions: Produce results, and we won't hassle you.

It seems so simple, and yet, it's so very rare. More often than not, I've been nitpicked over getting to work five minutes late, or taking a lunch two minutes over the allotted 30, for being sick, for having a doctor's appointment — in all these instances the issue was never with my output, but with the fact that on some level, I had the gall to act human or have needs, refusing to be chained to my desk for every possible second.

According to a new book called Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It covered over at Slate, the authors have termed this rampant workplace vibing "sludge." (I prefer "bullshit from the man.")

Sludge is any comment that's meant to make a co-worker feel guilty about process rather than results. For example: "Nice of you to join us, Judy," when Judy arrives at the office a little late in the morning. Or: "I wish I had kids like Bill. He never has to be at work," when Bill leaves early to see his daughter's school play. These sorts of comments reinforce an outdated view of the relationship between a knowledge worker's time spent at a desk and his overall productivity.

We've all gotten this shit right? It is pervasive. I got sludge for having mono, for not wanting to pull double weekend shifts at one job because I have a kid, for not coming into work once during an ice storm because I literally couldn't get my car out of the driveway.

Rather than look at simply employee results — does he/she do the work required and do it well, and on time? — employee value seems to be far more tied to the appearance of work (showing up early or staying late, "looking busy"), or personality, or subterfuge.

I am not naïve — being nice and getting along at your job matters. Personality and "cultural fit" counts. But it shouldn't count more than actual working. Because nice fun people we all like who don't do their job just make more work for the rest of us. So do jerks who don't do their job, and bafflingly, those people find ways to never get fired either.

In part, we can blame managers, because they are supposed to set clear expectations and their style deeply affects how engaged people are at work. A recent poll published over at the Harvard Business Review blog found that the wrong manager is hired for the job 82 percent of the time.

Eighty-two percent. Who you work under matters, and how they act matters, and how they value you matters.

A lot:

Gallup reported in two large-scale studies in 2012 that only 30% of U.S. employees are engaged at work, and a staggeringly low 13% worldwide are engaged. Worse, over the past 12 years these low numbers have barely budged, meaning that the vast majority of employees worldwide are failing to develop and contribute at work.

Gallup has studied performance at hundreds of organizations and measured the engagement of 27 million employees and more than 2.5 million work units over the past two decades. No matter the industry, size, or location, we find executives struggling to unlock the mystery of why performance varies so immensely from one workgroup to the next. Performance metrics fluctuate widely and unnecessarily within most companies, in no small part from the lack of consistency in how people are managed. This "noise" frustrates leaders because unpredictability causes great inefficiencies in execution.

That's why I was heartened to read about a work plan called ROWE, or results-only work environment, with staggering results.

You could also call it Being Treated Like an Adult at Work, and it's simple: 100 percent autonomy. 100 percent accountability. Leave people alone to do their job. Don't hassle them about process or how they get results. Just measure the results. Don't hassle them about when they need time off, or about the afternoon dentist appointment, or when they are sick, or if they prefer doing their work at 2:30 a.m. naked eating Cheetos under their desk. Just let them work, but hold them accountable. No sludge allowed.

The result? Says Jody Thompson, one of the authors of the ROWE plan:

"You can imagine the shitstorm we created," says Thompson. "We were letting people run free like unicorns. We were also shining a bright light on the people who'd previously been able to hide inside the system by showing up every day without actually accomplishing much."

No shock, then, that the effect was "remarkable":

"When you get to take over your own life and feel responsible for yourself and your work," she says, "you feel proud and liberated and dignified. Managers come to us and say, 'My people grew four feet! I can't even recognize them.' Something happens to you when you feel like an adult again at work. It's the control, but it's also the clarity on top of it. I now need to know what my results are supposed to be so I can prove that I'm getting there."

And what happened with employees? They slept better, because they were less stressed about work. People stayed home when they were sick, or actually went to the doctor, so fewer people got other people at work sick. People exercised more because they had time to take care of themselves instead of clocking in for indentured sludge. Fewer people left. More people liked their jobs. Also, productivity increased like 41 percent.

ROWE FOR EVERYONE! Nah, it didn't last. A CEO change at the company where ROWE was tested (Best Buy) nixed it as part of their new regime. And no, of course, ROWE wouldn't work for every position anyway — I couldn't run a Wendy's drive-thru from my house. But this doesn't mean we shouldn't be given more flex time or simply treated like autonomous adults. The only thing being hassled about taking two minutes more at lunch changed for me was my effort to get the hell out of that job. Everyone deserves the space to be human. This should not be considered a radical concept.

Image by Jim Cooke.