Work Redefined

Seattle Municipal Archives
We must discard the prevailing industrial model of work, an antiquated approach to productivity that no longer fits the times we’re living in, argues the author.

In Brief

Work as we know it just isn’t working. Both men and women are struggling to manage the demands of their professional and personal lives. Some organizations have responded by implementing workplace flexibility policies and practices; others, like Yahoo, have rolled back innovations. But what does a thriving twenty-first-century workplace look like? We need to let go of our long held beliefs about work, adapt to a new workplace culture, and provide a safety net of social policies for all workers. It’s time to redefine work.

Key Concepts

  • Both the workforce and workplace have changed

  • We need to get rid of the antiquated Industrial Model of Work and adopt the Accountability Model of Work

  • We need to adapt to a new workplace culture that produces results and provide a safety net of social policies for all workers

  • By taking these steps we work toward enacting equitable and sustainable solutions for all workers

As women have joined the professional workforce over the last 30 years, a new generation is pushing for women to equalize the upper echelons of industry. Why, they ask, do women make up less than a fifth of Congress, and fewer than 5 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 lists?1 Are cultural norms and antiquated work schedules still pushing women to make professional sacrifices?2 Current national discussions entertain a host of new ideas—from flex-time to pregnancy parking spaces—aimed at toppling the final barriers to women’s advancement. Furthermore, men are voicing their desire to be more than just a paycheck and are talking about their roles as caregivers and partners in dual-earner relationships.3

Now that both men and women are struggling to manage the demands of their professional and personal lives, will organizations be more likely to offer flexible work arrangements and reduce the stigmas attached to using them? Or are the issues we face broader than the scope of workplace flexibility? According to Mark Royal, senior principal at the global management consulting firm Hay Group, “organizations across the globe continue to ask their employees to do more with less, leading to increasing dissatisfaction with work-life balance. Tactical solutions like telecommuting or flexible work schedules will not be enough to successfully address these mounting concerns.”4

If implementing workplace flexibility is not enough to create a thriving twenty-first century workplace, then what is? There may be more than one answer to that question. This article suggests adapting to a new model of work, provides an example of a new work culture, and recommends enacting a safety net of social policies for workers.

Get Rid of the Antiquated Industrial Model of Work

It is time to let go of old beliefs about work so that we can move forward to develop and nurture new models, practices, policies, and laws that will enable us to flourish in the twenty-first century. Letting go of old beliefs isn’t easy. In fact, anthropologists claim that we hang on to our old beliefs long after technological, economic, and demographic systems have changed.5 Try to keep an open mind as you read the following that challenges our long-held beliefs about work.

Our labor laws and practices still focus on an antiquated Industrial Model of Work that uses time spent in the office or at the work site as a measure of productivity. We still cling to some kind of 1950s middle-class nostalgic belief that an ideal worker does not have time constraints because someone at home manages child care, elder care, and household responsibilities. This is no longer true. Currently,

  • Half of the employees on U.S. payrolls are women.
  • Low income women are breadwinners in two-thirds of their families.
  • Seventy percent of children live in households where all adults are employed.
  • One in four Americans cares for an elderly relative. (This percentage will likely increase because the percentage of Americans over the age of 65 years is expected to rise to 20 percent in 2030.)6-10

We need a new model of work that acknowledges changes in our society and helps to create a paradigm shift. It is time to get rid of the antiquated Industrial Model of Work and replace it with the Accountability Model of Work, a model inspired by the research of many people contributing to the national dialogue about the need to change our workplace culture.

Industrial Model

  • No caregiving responsibilities
  • Work throughout adulthood until (linear)
  • Time at work is a measure of productivity

Accountability Model

  • Everyone has caregiving responsibilities
  • Acknowledge phases and stages of retirement life (nonlinear)
  • Outcomes or results are a measure of productivity12,14,32-38

If we expand the definition of caregiving to care for oneself, care for others, and care for one’s community, then everyone in the workforce has caregiving responsibilities. Caring for oneself includes eating well, exercising, sleeping, having a spiritual life, and having healthy relationships. Caring for others involves caring for children, elders, spouses, partners, siblings, or others we include in our families. Caring for one’s community entails volunteer work or engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. Why is this important? Workers need time for caregiving.

Long hours of work are stressful, undermine family functioning and social connections, and cause physical and emotional illnesses. Overworked employees are more likely to be depressed, more likely to experience stress, and less likely to take care of themselves. Excessive work hours also reduce sleep, which in turn erodes health. People who work too much are unable to engage in other activities, primarily social ones that improve their well-being.11

According to recent research conducted by the Hay Group, 27 percent of workers who perceive that their companies do not support work-life balance plan to leave their jobs in the next two years. Employee turnover impacts a company’s bottom line because on average it costs at least half an employee’s salary to replace the employee.4 Organizations must respect that everyone has caregiving responsibilities to attract and retain talented employees.

Organizations must also recognize different phases in our lives that may make it necessary to adjust the amount of paid and unpaid work we do. Phases of life include pursuing additional training or education, recovering from a serious illness or injury, caring for a child or elderly family member, caring for a family member with disabilities or a chronic medical condition, pursuing volunteer work or public service, supporting a spouse’s or partner’s career opportunity, engaging in a life-enriching activity, or gradually retiring. Leaders should consider how workers might continue to contribute to organizations during different phases of their lives.


The shift from an industrial model of work to a results-only work environment can give employees more time for family and exercise, increasing their overall well-being.

Developing jobs conducive to reduced workloads enables employers to retain talented employees in whose training they have invested. Jobs with reduced workloads provide incentives for employees to continue working while responding to needs outside of work. For example, phased retirement provides an opportunity for a worker to mentor employees, transfer knowledge, and continue to add value to the organization. As baby boomers retire, this practice could squelch concerns about brain drain. There exists a talented pool of individuals who are experiencing a life phase and would willingly work for organizations if given the opportunity to have schedule control or a reduced workload. Harris Interactive conducted a nationwide survey of highly qualified women, defined as those with a graduate degree, professional degree, or high-honors undergraduate college degree. In the business sector, 89 percent of women believe that access to reduced-hour jobs is important. Across all sectors, the figure is 82 percent.12 “Our economy cannot grow along a sustainable path if workers do not have the wherewithal to be both productive contributors to the economy and caretakers of their families.”13 Keeping people in the workplace is good for our economy, for individuals, and for organizations that have invested resources in their employees.

Finally, we must focus on accountability. This means that instead of using time at work as a measure of productivity, we need to more clearly define what workers are accountable for achieving. For example, restaurant workers are responsible for providing a pleasant dining experience to customers. Each worker must understand what he or she is expected to contribute to this overall goal. This requires communication, collaboration and a continuous focus on quality. Then, individuals must assume personal responsibility for producing desired results.

Decision makers should recognize that the Accountability Model provides the foundation for shaping successful workplace cultures because it reflects today’s realities.

Adapt To a New Workplace Culture that Produces Results

Change does not occur simply by dictating what everyone must do. According to Margaret Wheatley, a renowned leadership expert, successful change occurs when organizations behave like living systems. Change begins when some part of a system notices something and chooses to be disturbed by it. This information circulates rapidly through the system and others amplify it. The information grows and changes and accumulates more meaning until the system can no longer deal with it. Then the system is forced to let go of present beliefs, structures, patterns, and values, plunging itself into uncertainty and chaos.

Wheatley explains further,

Having fallen apart, having let go of who it has been, the system is now and only now open to change. It will reorganize using new interpretations, new understandings of what’s real and what’s important. It becomes different because it understands the world differently. And, paradoxically, as is true with all living systems, it changed because it was the only way to preserve itself.14

This description of change is strikingly similar to the story that Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson share about creating the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE).

Several years ago, Cali Ressler articulated her dissatisfaction with the workplace status quo at Best Buy Incorporated. She voiced her concerns and began working with Jody Thompson who understood her discomfort and frustration. Together, they led focus groups and tested a number of solutions until they figured out that they needed to completely change the work systems at Best Buy.15

Drawing from what they learned through shared information, conversations, and experiences, they responded by changing work systems. The changes in the systems created a new workplace culture. Furthermore, they developed processes that enable other organizations to experience transformative change in a manner similar to Margaret Wheatley’s description of a successful change process.

ROWE challenges our commonly held beliefs about work and the ideal worker.

ROWE renounces long hours, visible busyness, and accepting unplanned work as signs of commitment or productivity and validates the daily integration of work and personal life, including the prioritization of personal responsibilities at times.16

It is understandable that a person’s first reaction could be: ROWE won’t work at my organization. Recognize that ROWE is not in alignment with the antiquated Industrial Model of Work that continues to shape our beliefs about work. Then, think again. ROWE is a workplace culture that requires continuous communication, collaboration, and attention to quality to produce results. Isn’t that what we want?


JD Lasica/Flickr
In a controversial decision to increase innovation and collaboration, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, pictured here, announced in mid-February that employees would return to the office instead of telecommuting.

In a ROWE managers and employees agree upon measurable results. This empowers employees to stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money. If an employee makes the wrong decision about an activity and results are not achieved, then that outcome must be addressed.17

Furthermore, ROWE responds to both men and women’s needs for greater work-life balance and well-being. Tom Rath and Jim Harter conducted a Gallup Poll study to explore elements of well-being that transcend countries and cultures. Their findings suggest that to create a life that is worthwhile we need to: find something we love to do that benefits society; invest time in strengthening our relationships with people we love; acquire financial security to provide for our family’s needs; and adopt lifestyles that give us the health and energy to keep moving each day.18

When people have complete control over their time, they begin to use it wisely to optimize every aspect of their lives, including work.19 Recently, researchers found that employees participating in a ROWE are more likely to care for themselves by increasing the amount of sleep they get and exercising more. Plus, ROWE employees are much more likely to not go to the workplace when they are ill and more likely to see a doctor. ROWE participants also report that conflict between their work and home lives decreases. Greater schedule control contributes to improved individual health and indirectly affects improved well-being.20

ROWE employees express appreciation for schedule control. Their children make comments like, “I never thought I’d get to have breakfast with you on a Wednesday!” and “None of my friends’ parents get to walk them to the bus stop. I’m glad you can.”19 These moments may sound simple, but according to Bill Doherty, a nationally respected family therapist, even simple rituals provide a means for parents and children to connect with each other daily, which supports healthy family relationships.21 Patricia Kempthorne, founder and CEO of the Twiga Foundation, has devoted her life to raising “family consciousness” in all that we do. Recently, she commented, “I applaud leaders who support workplace cultures that acknowledge the importance of families. Families are the heart of our society.”22 We need workplace cultures that enable families to thrive. Working in a ROWE provides individuals with greater schedule control allowing them to care for themselves and for others. Greater schedule control provides employees with more opportunities to achieve wellbeing which in turn leads to greater employee engagement at work.18

Results-Only Work Environment

  • All employees are given complete control over their time
  • Each employee is responsible for determining when and where to work
  • There are no work schedules
  • Work is not a place you go, it is something you do
  • All meetings are optional
  • People at all levels stop doing activities that are a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money
  • Nobody talks about how many hours they work. (Non-exempt employees track their hours for human resources in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act but do not share their timesheets with their managers)
  • There is no judgment about how you spend your time
  • Everyone has unlimited paid time off (PTO) as long as the work gets done
  • Everyone focuses on achieving results15,19

The Gap Inc. is a real life example of transitioning to a workplace culture that produces results.

Gap Inc. has called ROWE a “cultural revolution,” allowing employees to have complete autonomy over how they approach their work and focus on being accountable for results. Management and employees report an increase in the overall energy and engagement level, greater focus on quality rather than simply meeting deadlines, and an overall sense of trust among employees at all levels of the organization.23

Productivity increased by 17 percent after the company adapted to the new workplace culture.24

Managers in a ROWE learn to trust people to complete their work. Obviously this requires communication about what needs to be done and when work needs to be completed. Learning to ask what do you need? and when do you need it?, keeps the focus on providing quality client or customer service.

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told employees to return to the office, she cited the need for greater innovation and collaboration.25 Research actually contradicts the notion that employees need to be physically present to brainstorm new ideas. In a ROWE, all meetings are optional and Ressler and Thompson recommend an alternative to brainstorming meetings. They suggest asking each individual to submit her ideas via email directly to the manager. This gives employees time to develop and share their ideas and it gives the manager several ideas to build upon rather than just one or two that result from a group session.19 This is a highly effective managerial method. According to Susan Cain, “If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas.” Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota studied brainstorming for 40 years and found that brainstorming in groups is not productive.26 Presenteeism is not required for creativity or productivity. Ressler and Thompson’s new book, Why Management Sucks and How to Fix It, addresses commonly held beliefs and provides numerous examples for managers learning to manage work instead of people to achieve results.

A ROWE redefines work as something you do, not someplace you go. Workers develop a shared language focused on working together to produce results. People stop making judgmental comments like “glad you could join us” or “you’re leaving early today,” because these comments imply that time in the office is more important than doing the job. Employees learn to identify regressive comments and refer to them as sludge. Calling people on sludge redirects everyone’s attention back to the work.17


Brainstorming in person is not nearly as productive as generally assumed, says psychologist Marvin Dunnette. Geographically dispersed groups can just as well—perhaps more effectively—find creative solutions.

The ROWE workplace culture rejects the antiquated Industrial Model of Work and challenges our corresponding “ideal worker” norms. It moves beyond workplace flexibility programs shifting the focus away from time at work to creating a workplace culture that produces results. Employees collaborate with co-workers to figure out how to get the work done to achieve results. Shifting to the Accountability Model of work, adapting to the ROWE workplace culture, and providing a safety net of social policies for all workers is one way to work toward equitable and sustainable solutions.

Provide a Safety Net of Social Policies for All Workers

Changes in the workforce create the need to change our social policies. One policy that all organizations can adopt immediately is to add protection for caregivers to their discrimination policies. Joan Williams, director for the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, suggests that an organization’s policy could simply state the following.

“It is the company’s policy not to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin or ancestry, marital status or family responsibilities, veteran’s status, or disability in accordance with applicable federal, state and local law.”27

We are living in a time where both men and women work outside the home and both men and women have caregiving responsibilities. Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at Evergreen State College, argues that we need to stop seeing work-family policy as a woman’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles, and elders.28 Work life policies need to be available to everyone.

Furthermore, everyone who works should be eligible for paid time off from work. The Center for American Progress recently issued a report recommending universal, national, paid family and medical leave, and national earned sick time for workers to care for their own illnesses, to care for family members, or to cope with domestic violence.13 They propose that the Social Security Administration administer the paid leave. “Because the Social Security Administration already administers benefits to workers who become disabled and a worker’s surviving family members, there is a structure in place to establish the criteria for eligibility and benefits that takes into account a variety of life circumstances and employment histories.29 What if temporary disability insurance, workers compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, paid time off, family leave, and special duties leave (jury duty, military leave) were combined? Would this approach be easier to administer and more protective of employee privacy?30 Should employees and employers be forced to contribute to these savings plans in a manner similar to Social Security? There are many reasons that a worker may need to be absent from work for a short period of time. Life events such as work-related accidents, recovering from surgery, the birth of a new child, the death of a family member, or even jury duty that may necessitate an absence from work and a temporary inability to produce results. Even workers in a ROWE need a safety net of social policies. We need policies to keep people in the workforce and pay them for short absences.

Our national dialogues promote personal responsibility. Individuals bear increasingly more economic risk than corporations or the government. For example, workers are now responsible for saving for retirement instead of being eligible for pensions that are insured by the federal government and heavily regulated to prevent mismanagement.31 While popular opinion encourages personal accountability, it is necessary to have some basic protections for workers and their families in place.

It’s Time to Redefine Work

We need to let go of our commonly held beliefs about work that no longer serve us well. Next, we need to shift our thinking and build new constructs in alignment with the Accountability Model of Work. This will allow us to focus on creating workplace cultures that promote both performance and well-being. Finally, we need to provide a safety net of social policies for all workers. These changes are necessary for our country to thrive in the twenty-first century.


I would like to acknowledge Rachel Barbour who has talked with me for years about work life challenges and continues to cheer for me to add to the dialogue. Thank you Rachel.