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When Tobias needs to find people, she checks the whiteboards hanging outside their cubes, where she and her co-workers write down where they are on any given day: "In the office today." "Out of the office this afternoon, available by e-mail." The impromptu meetings are gone, but business done by cell phone is way up. Because she no longer assumes that everyone is around, Tobias makes more of an effort to catch up with her colleagues by phone or e-mail instead of just dropping by someone's office. "You can still have those conversations," she says, just not always in person. She noticed that e-mails have gotten more concise and meaningful, with much less "FYI." And as everyone started to rethink their priorities, guess what fell to the bottom of the list? "We spend a lot less time in meetings," Tobias says. They used to have a two-hour weekly staff meeting that often devolved into chit-chat. Now, if they don't need to meet, they don't.
The transition required a lot of deprogramming of old attitudes, and it produced a lot of pain. Some employees break down and cry in ROWE training sessions. "People in the baby-boom generation realize what they gave up to get ahead in the workplace, and a lot of times it's their families. They realize that it doesn't have to be that way," says Ressler, her eyes tearing up. In particular, men thank her and Thompson, who run the sessions, for giving them permission to spend more time with their families. "They know now they can do it and not be judged," says Thompson.
The change also has exposed some ugly attitudes among managers. When Thompson proposed extending flexibility to hourly workers, the managers resisted, arguing that "there are certain people that need to be managed differently than other people. 'Because we believe that administrative assistants need to be at their desk to 'serve' their bosses,'" she says. That issue is not yet resolved, but Thompson says ROWE is forcing the company to confront it.
For now, Best Buy's hybrid nature--half flexible, half 9 to 5--is stirring conflict too. Ressler and Thompson get desperate e-mails from a handful of ROWE employees--accustomed to freedom--who have moved to jobs in departments that still operate on traditional schedules. "We could have a counseling clinic up all day long," Thompson says. "They feel alone." On the other side, Denise LaMere, a Best Buy corporate strategist, has struggled to figure out how to prove herself in the new environment. "It made me very nervous," LaMere says. Without children, she once had an advantage--she could always be the first one in and the last one out. "I had all this panic," she says. "Everything we knew about success was suddenly changing."
The deprogramming begins with what Best Buy calls "sludge sessions," because they are where employees dig out the cultural barriers to change--the jokes and comments that reinforce overwork. "It's like, coming in at 10 o'clock and someone says, 'Wow, I wish I could come in at 10,'" Tobias says. "It's really hard to let that bounce off and not be defensive." LaMere, 32, says she used to gossip about who was taking an extra-long lunch break. "We were all watching each other," she says. "You don't want to be seen eating in the cafeteria." LaMere always ate at her desk.