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The Evolution of How Work Is Defined

Technology advances are driving a total transformation of what places of work look like and thus the characteristics of the work accomplished within them. The proliferation of mobile communication technology and social networking tools mean a workplace can be anywhere. Workforces can now be more mobile and are increasingly becoming more virtual. It is no longer necessary for professionals to sit in Dilbert-style cubicle farms plugging away for 8 hours a day. Today’s professional can be anywhere, anytime. This makes it easier than ever to redefine the nature of work because it takes the most traditional, ingrained assumption about work—attendance—and throws it out the window. Without attendance, the only thing left is results. If a company values results over attendance, this can translate into huge increases in productivity and, more importantly, worker satisfaction.

The traditional view of “work” involves monotony, physical exertion, and mind-numbing repetition. Workers actually prefer task identity in their work. They want to know what they are doing, that the effort is significant, and that the significance is meaningful to the team. People want to belong to a group and they want to know they are making positive contributions. More succinctly, workers thrive on task identity and task significance, the latter being most critical when it comes to motivation.

Most companies in America today are not task-centric. While performance is often discussed in terms of periodic reviews, evaluations, or goals, task identity becomes synonymous with attendance. This is because traditional companies emphasize the time clock, not performance. Task significance takes second place to simply being “present and accounted for”. With the significance of tasks deemphasized in this way, motivation becomes a problem. Busy work is inevitable as lower level managers struggle to justify attendance i.e., headcount. When attendance is king, managers must resort to pestering workers by micromanaging in order to achieve their own task identity.

A results oriented work environment (ROWE) puts organizational emphasis on task significance by valuing results over attendance. In the most extreme cases, ROWE employees are free to come and go (or stay away if virtual work is feasible) as they please. In a ROWE, results matter most; but a company doesn’t have to turn its employees completely loose to reap some of the benefits of the approach. When the emphasis is on results and not attendance, focus shifts from making sure employees are working to making sure the tasks they are working on are yielding the desired results. Task identity becomes critical and task importance becomes redundant, for why focus on tasks that will not deliver a necessary result? A ROWE mindset eliminates busy-work and gets professionals enthusiastic, energized, and excited about their work. It becomes clear how the tasks they are working on affect the business unit. When results are king, it’s easy to figure out “what would be the impact to my group if this didn’t get done?”. 

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