Freedom at Work: Setting Your Own Schedule*

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2013

One of the key tenets of a democratic workplace is for workers to set their own schedules. How can this possibly work? One supervisor told me that among his several staff, a “slacker” like Kyle –given his druthers - would now come to work at 11AM and leave at 3PM after a two-hour lunch. Jamal, who arrives early and leaves late, would get shafted. And, what about Jordan? She says her family situation restricts her working evenings or weekends.
Is this supervisor’s incredulous response warranted? Yes, if nothing else changes in the organization. If the culture of the hierarchy remains compartmentalized and departmentalized, self-scheduling is improbable. I had a similar response when one organization I worked in decided to empower its staff. The planning group had a pretty good idea of what empowerment meant, but the staff did not – the fault of us planners. Staff asked me, “Since I am empowered, don’t I get to fire my co-workers and do what I want and only when I want to?** I explained – to the worker’s disappointment - that was not “our” version of empowerment. The needs of the organization prevailed, the work had to get done. My response to the would-be-anarchists applies doubly when workers set their own schedules. As a member of a team - the preferred organizational unit in a freed-up organization – you do not work alone. So, decisions about hours of work are not self-serving or made in isolation. An effective team (nota bene: effective) understands why it exists, where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve.
Please keep in mind that “democratic organizations are transparent, (egalitarian) and open with employees about the financial health, strategy, and agenda of the organization.”*** In other words, the “books” – budget and personnel - are open.
So, if an information desk has to be staffed weekends and evenings or if a processing unit has a one-day turnaround goal then the team knows its parameters, its limits. However, while getting the job done takes priority in schedule setting, there is flexibility in start and end times, breaks, lunches and vacations. These exceptions are negotiable within the team. Effective teams - those that have high trust and good communication - can customize individual schedules and still achieve stellar performance. And, when there’s conflict – say a team member is not abiding by his or her agreed-upon schedule, like our slacker friend, Kyle - the group takes care of the disciplinary process.
Remember, an effective team by definition, enjoys high trust, open communication and has had some training in how to have difficult conversations. While team members personally may desire to avoid, accommodate or compromise on conflict the group’s accountability steers it away from the avoidance route. There’s far less likelihood of game playing in self-managing teams than in a top-down supervisor arrangement. The group self monitors and is more likely than a supervisor to call a negative behavior.

*Note: This is the first of several blog entries on how democratic workplaces behave. Besides the topic of work schedules I will cover pay and perks, production norms, hiring and firing, and workflow planning. In most hierarchies these “choices” have been removed from the workers and delegated to a central authority. The centralization idea is misguided – a central authority is not the way to a productive and smoothly performing organization. Choice is the difference between the hierarchy and a democracy. “Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.”

** Karl Marx, famously offered up, in 1845, this glimpse of utopia:
“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Or, to bring it up to Web.2 speed, the freed worker can now “facebook” in the morning, “tweet” in the afternoon and “yelp” or "telecommute” in the evening or whatever else he or she wishes in cyberspace.

***Quoted material comes from a list of principles for successful and sustainable democratic workplace.

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