Jennifer Janssen is having one of those days. She works in the finance department of Best Buy, and one of the company's electronics suppliers is furious because he claims he has not been paid. "He told me, 'I'm not going to ship any more product to your company unless I get this issue resolved,'" she says. She has to fix the problem by the end of the day, but the 35-year-old mother of 5-year-old twins also has to pick up her children from day care. What happens next? Perhaps she makes a sheepish call to her husband, asking if he could skip out early while she puts out the fire at work. (Again?) Maybe she scrambles madly to find someone who can clean up the mess in time for her to sneak out at 4. (Did anyone see me?) Or perhaps, after another late night, she spends the car ride home wondering whether she should just quit. (This time, I swear!)
But no. Instead of "swarming around all over the place, trying to find a body" who can cover for her, Janssen is calm. As she figures out what happened to her vendor's check, she knows that she will walk out of the office at 4--without guilt, without looking over her shoulder--because even if a solution isn't found by then, she can keep working on it from her laptop at home. No one whispers that she's leaving. In fact, no one notices. That's because Janssen is part of an ambitious new experiment to solve the problem of overwork. Like many other U.S. companies, Best Buy has struggled to meet the demands of its business--how to do things better, faster and cheaper than its competitors--with an increasingly stressed-out work force.
The company's ethos has always glorified long hours and sacrifice. One boss gave a plaque to the employee "who turns on the lights in the morning and turns them off at night." Darrell Owens, a 14-year Best Buy veteran, once stayed up for three days in a row to write a report that was suddenly due. He got a bonus and a vacation, he says, but first, "I ended up in the hospital." Cali Ressler, a human-resources executive, had noticed an alarming trend: women were accepting the reduced pay and status of a part-time position but doing the same work because it was the only way to get the flexibility they needed. "If we keep moving the way we're moving," she says, "women are going to be in the same place we were 40 years ago."
Sound familiar? The number of people in the U.S. who say they are overworked has been rising, from 28% of Americans in 2001 to 44% last year, according to the Families and Work Institute. But instead of launching yet another "work-life balance" program, Best Buy is rethinking the very concept of work, challenging Ben Franklin's aphorism that "time is money." Under the results-oriented work environment, or ROWE, employees can work when and where they like, as long as they get the job done.