Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Output Oriented Work

At work, I recently had them remove all of my office furniture. I went from having this massive built in "P" of table and desk space to one very small desk. While I have since been saddled with a larger desk (because the office it was in was too small to handle it), during the small desk days, people thought I was crazy. They kept peering into my office quizzically and asking what happened or when I was getting new furniture. Their confusion would grow when I would tell them that this is what I wanted; that I was going to put an armchair in the corner and that would be it.

Like lawns and traditional house plans, adherence to traditional office configurations perplexes me. When I work from home, I seldom work at a desk. Right now, I am sprawled on a couch with the computer on my lap. I could work at a desk. There is one not 6 feet away, but I choose to work like this consistently. Why would I make a different choice in the office? I don't think I am alone in choosing more comfortable accommodation. My roommate consistently works from his bed. My father works from his big cushy chair and ottoman. If this is how we choose to work when given a large set of alternatives, shouldn't we strive to make the office environment (where we spend large amounts of time) mimic our revealed preferences? This is what I am striving to do with my office. (Further, my body apparently knows what's up because my choices are also apparently better for my back.)

Just as I am challenging traditional conceptions of office space, others are challenging the basic notion of work. Many firms have started to shift from input-oriented work (where a key determinant of performance is attendance) to output oriented work (where what you accomplish not where and when is important). This article on Best Buy's "ROWE -- Results Only Work Environment" program is a nice look at this change. Just like there is no reason to contort your body into a chair at a desk simply because this is what people have always done, there is no reason to contort your life to a rigid work schedule if your ability to do you job doesn't require it.

Obviously, the success of these types of programs hinge on the ability to measure individual output with some degree of accuracy and certainty and the lack of substantial negative productivity spillovers from imperfectly correlated work schedules. These are both non-trivial problems, but hopefully they can be managed successfully to allow output oriented work to become more common.

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