Allowing Employees To Choose Their Working Hours and How They Want To Work

ricardo semler quote by life artisanThis quote by Ricardo Semler reminds me of how I managed a typical Gen-Y contractor at one stage many years ago.

Ricardo Semler is best known for his radical form of organisation model and corporate re-engineering.  At the age of 22, when he took over the family business, Semco, he fired most of the top level executives, cut down the levels of management hierarchy, gave the employees the choice to set their own hours as well as the choice of electing their managers and so on. Under his ownership, the company revenue grew from US$4 million in 1982 to US$212 million in 2003. (Source: Wikipedia, Fortune.com and article posted by Sam Mashiach in Linkedin)

So back to my contractor…

He was a young man in his early 20s whom we hired to restructure our department website. He was quick and cluey and easily bored.  He wore his ear phones while working and would be browsing websites while doing work.  I know because I’d take a peek on him from time to time to see how he’s going.  At that time, working while listening to music with ear/head phones and browsing sites on the internet wasn’t very common in the organisation.  It was a no-no.  He was contracted and paid to work between 8:30am and 5pm.  But this young man would turn up at 9am and on day 1 came up with a reason why he had to leave at 4:30pm, and on day 2 another reason why he had to leave at 4pm.  And on the timesheet he would write that he worked from 8:30am-5pm.

Who were my management role models?

Now my only role models of management are the ones that I experienced from my immediate managers and observed from other managers over the years, and most managers even up to 2 years ago and even today were quite old fashioned or having an “old school” management style.  This means that these managers:

  • expect you to put in the exact number of work hours per day or more
  • believes that you’ll need to be seen at your desk to be “perceived” as working and/or accessible (hmm… perception, I’ve heard this word too much from many a manager… more on this perhaps in another blog), AND
  • demands that you do your job in the way that he/she thinks it must be done.

How did I manage my contractor?

So with this management or supervisory models in mind, and not being a manager myself, I was managing this smart yet bored contractor in the only way I knew how.  I would constantly check on him from time to time (well, a LOT MORE regularly I must admit) including daily catch-ups.  The project was allocated a budget and had a short target date.  The close supervisory style that I was employing on my contractor was my way of ensuring that we reach our target date and within budget.  What I didn’t realise in the first two days was that I was micro-managing him.  Aside from that I spoke to him about the hours that he’d been entering on the timesheet and pointed out my expectation and contractual agreement that he was to work exactly the number of hours he was paid to do and that if he worked less hours, that he is required to enter exactly the number of hours he worked and nothing more.  I was doing everything by the book.  Well, if you say that you’ve worked for 7.6 hours and get paid for it, shouldn’t you work for exactly 7.6 hours??  It’s company policy, right, and it’s being fair to the business?

What was the effect of my management style on my contractor and on me?

He reluctantly agreed but I could tell he was unhappy about it.  This was day 3 and I noticed that he was becoming sullen, disinterested, and he didn’t appear to be making much progress with his tasks when I checked on him.  It was taking him long to do content management activities which I know he could do with one eye closed while listening to music! In addition, I was feeling stressed with having to constantly check up on him and manage him.  My time was spent on worrying about him and the project instead of focusing on my own work!  I was becoming concerned because we have a target date to finish constrained within a budget. With the way he was going, we (meaning me) would not be able to meet my goal and it’s really my responsibility.

I thought and thought about what I was going to do.  How can I make this guy do a good job or even do some decent work?  With the rate he’s going he didn’t seem to care and it’s too late for me to find and train another contractor!  How can I improve our relationship?  How can I make it work? A part of me just wanted to stand up over him and be a “MANAGER”, point my finger at him and say JUST DO IT!  I had this picture in my head of a “powerful” the-buck-stops-with-me kind of boss glaring at his lowly subordinates. But I knew that tactic will not work. I might get results but that would be the beginning of the death of our relationship. Is that what I want? I was at WAR with myself! OMG the stress and pressure of failing and looking like a fool!  And I so wanted to show my manager at that time that I could do this project (I was the one who calculated the effort and costs and suggested getting a contractor as a solution).

So I came up with a solution.

I kind of had an idea in mind but wasn’t sure how it will work.  Before day 3 finished I had a chat with him.  I asked him how he’s going and that he doesn’t appear to be fine, and asked him to tell me straight and honestly about it as I feel that it’s not working for us and I want to improve how we work together, and maybe there was something that I wasn’t doing right?  I spoke to him in exactly this way and he told me.  Thank goodness he actually spoke out!  What I noticed about people and even my colleagues is that they don’t really speak out or are afraid to speak out what they really feel or think out of concern or fear that whatever they say will backfire on them.  My contractor would have probably behaved in the same way if I didn’t communicate to him in the way I did. There is a way of communicating with people and although words, intonation and body language has something to do with it, it’s the sincerity in you that people would sense and make them decide to open up or not. So he told me that he didnt like me checking up on him all the time, that he really doesn’t want to stay at his desk most times, that he’d prefer to be flexible and be free to take breaks whenever he wanted and for as long as he wanted, and that he really wanted to come in after 9am and finish at 4pm and still enter in his timesheet the full 7.6 hours so he still gets paid a full day’s work.

Now if you’re a manager, how would you react to that?  How did I react to it?  Like the emoticon with its mouth wide open there would be enough flies to create a population in there! The gall of him, was he looking for ways to get fired?!?  Sorry I asked, I should have just demanded he does what I say or else…!  Or else… I will escalate it to my manager?  Lame. Of course I didn’t think along those lines.  It was confronting and challenging but lucky I had some idea in mind.  So I told him, what if together we set a goal for him to complete a volume of work each week?  And at the end of each week we’d catch up and see how he/we’re progressing.  I explained to him that I’ve committed to completing the project within a certain period and my bleep is on the line if I don’t reach it, and that I really need his help.  And in return, I said to him that his hours are his to manage, he can come in whenever and leave whenever, that he could even work for 4 hours AND he can enter the full 7.6 hours in his timesheet, I don’t care… SO LONG as he completes the agreed work to be completed within the agreed time.  The look on his face.  It was a transformation.

Reactions from colleagues!

Ok, so not only did we have old school management styles, I had colleagues who unfortunately were indoctrinated with this management-subordinate style hierarchy mentality as well.  So I had people coming to me in confidence and saying in a whisper, “do you know that your contractor was browsing the web the whole time?” or “do you know that he was gone from his lunch for 2 hours?!?”.  I just calmly looked at them and said, “Oh my god, really?  Oh good, he got to have a break.  At least he’s not bored, it breaks his day.”  And they just looked at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

What was the outcome?

It was FANTASTIC!  The relationship between me and my contractor improved, he was happier, I was happier and I had my freedom.  Freedom you say?  Well, freedom to breathe, freedom to let go, freedom to trust others to do their job, freedom to complete my own job.  I knew how my contractor does his job, I knew what our goal was, and because he trusted me, I had full trust in him that he will deliver on our agreement. AND the best outcome for me from that was that we were able to complete the project to a very good standard WAY before the deadline, AND way below the budget.  So not only did the project complete earlier than planned, but we saved some money too.

What did I learn from it?

A lot!  I realised that every person has different ways of doing work and to get the best out of them, I have to work with them in the way they wanted to work.  There’s a psychology behind it.  My main goal was to get the job done.  It doesn’t really matter how it gets done so long as it gets done well and within time.  And it’s not me who’s doing the job, it’s not my body, my mind, my hands that are doing the work.  It’s my contractor’s mind, body, hands, etc. so why should I tell him how to use it when he’s the only one who knows how to?

And one other thing I learned:  It’s not easy to be a manager.  Early on in my career I’ve made the decision not to be a manager or people manager.  I have too high an expectation on what to me is a good manager.  There is too much to juggle.  How can you be a good people leader while juggling with your own work and managing your manager at the same time?  That’s another question I have, do we even need to manage the managers we report to?  Is this an old-school thinking?

In another blog, I will be posting my ideas on what I believe is a good great leader.

For now, if you’re a manager or a people leader, remember that you’re in a position of power and you have the responsibility and power to get the best out of your employees.  How you do that is up to you; do you want short term outcomes or long-term sustainable results?  If you’re an employee (which we all are, including the people managers) remember that your manager is also just like you, and that they really only know what they know.  You can teach your managers in being better leaders by setting an example, because being a leader doesn’t necessarily equal title.

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