Best Buy Cuts Workers Loose from Clock, Desks

One company has abandoned the concept of a regular workday. Best Buy, the giant retailer of electronics, is encouraging much of its corporate staff to work whatever hours they want, and to do so wherever they please. The company says productivity is booming.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One way employees balance work and personal life is with flex-time. At Best Buy, the consumer electronics retailer, they've gone even further.

About half the staff at its Minnesota headquarters can work wherever and whenever they want. They don't even have to come to work at all, as long as they get the job done.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

For the roughly 2,000 Best Buy employees who are participating in what the company calls ROWE, a result oriented work environment, there are no mandated work hours or schedules. None. Employees are free to work at the local coffee house or on their patio. If they want to take off in the middle of the day and work in the middle of the night, that's fine. Want to hike all day on Thursday? That's okay, too. No need to ask permission. The only requirement: that the job gets done.

Jack Akin(ph) is a senior manager whose employees fill online orders. As they prepared for the new approach, Akin had to take a leap of faith.

Mr. JACK AKIN (Senior Manager, Best Buy, Inc.): I was blown away that by saying, I trust that you're going to get this work done, people actually worked harder and produced better quality outcomes than they had before.

KAUFMAN: Akin says that his employees process 10 to 20 percent more orders than contract workers doing the same job in a traditional office setting. What's more, he says, the focus on results and not the number of hours you sit at a desk has fostered an entrepreneurial spirit. Employees are thinking about their jobs differently and coming up with innovative ideas that save the company time and money.

And do his team members like it?

Mr. AKIN: The employees definitely like it. We've had employees that have resisted taking promotions because the other team wasn't in the ROWE environment yet.

KAUFMAN: Best Buy began implementing the results driven approach in 2002 after too many people had quit, and too many others were complaining of stress-related health problems. Though the company plans to convert its entire corporate staff to ROWE, some managers remain skeptical, even suggesting that those who aren't in the office are probably slackers.

Akin suggests the skeptics are looking at the wrong thing.

Mr. AKIN: If you see someone every day, your assumption is, well, they're sitting at their desk. They must be working. That's not a valid assumption. And when you strip away that, you find performance issues a lot faster.

KAUFMAN: More than 70 percent of corporate America now offers some flexible work programs, typically flex-time. But Stephanie Penner, a principal at Mercer Human Resources Consulting, doesn't see a wholesale move toward Best Buy's approach.

Ms. STEPHANIE PENNER (Senior Consultant, Mercer Human Resources Consulting): The idea here is to know your workforce. That's the key message here. And to understand what employees value, what they think is important, what are they satisfied with.

KAUFMAN: If their goals and the corporations goals are the same, she says, you will likely have a win-win situation. Best Buy thinks it does, though the company says it's too early to see any results on the bottom line.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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