Online Extra: How to Kill Meetings

Some folks at Best Buy have found methods to squelch this time-eating monster, but not everyone's happy about it

Meetings are the devil. These days the workforce is taken hostage by process, process, process, and that often involves meetings. Cubicle Land has become a place where, when workers return to their desks at 6 p.m., only then do they have the time to begin returning phone calls, answering e-mails. and, well, doing their work.

In Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) culture clinics at Best Buy (BBY ), employees learn a new workplace language, one that says meetings are often time-sucking crutches for undisciplined managers. Or ways for lazy bureaucrats to hide behind a mirage of busy-ness.

The idea is that if underlings and bosses simply clarify exactly what results they need, meeting volume can be slashed dramatically. The time people waste in meetings talking tangents, piffling about, or administering slow and painful deaths via filibuster is a huge enemy of work-life balance.

Dialing In by Phone

  The point under ROWE is to make meetings a last resort; to hold them when it's the only way to accomplish the work, not use them as a way to make decisions. Managers at Best Buy also learn, as a matter of course, to attach a conference bridge to every meeting they schedule so that people can dial in from anywhere. This is slowly helping to erode the expectation that attending a meeting means having to actually show up in person.

Best Buy workers learn new responses when asked to attend a meeting they don't really need to be at—or choose to attend virtually. One comeback: "Can I get it to you beforehand?" Employees also learn about what ROWE founders Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler call "sludge."

Sludge is all the stuff we sling at each other about being—or not being—in the office. (Out late last night? Were you here this weekend? Dude, another vacation?)

When old-school clock-watchers give colleagues a hard time, ROWE'ers are instructed to respond with such statements as "Was there something you needed?" If the answer is yes, the teaching is to shoot back something like, "Don't you have my cell?" Pretty basic stuff. But at arrive-at-7 a.m.-if-you-want-a-promotion types of enterprises (sound familiar?), these statements can often amount to the mutterings of subversives.

The Thirteen Commandments

  So far, Best Buy's attempts to torch the great American butt-in-chair charade seem to be working. Judging by the cubicle ghost towns that abound at headquarters in Minneapolis, replete with their empty, Great Plains vibe, it appears as if many employees prefer working anywhere, so long as it's not at work.

Central to the success in cutting meeting volume are the ROWE culture clinics that ingrain the program's commandments, a set of 13 guideposts that include statements such as "People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer's time, or the company's money," "Nobody talks about how many hours they work," and "It's O.K. to grocery shop on Wednesday morning, catch a movie on a Tuesday afternoon, or take a nap on Thursday morning."

Offenders are easy to spot: they're usually the types who schedule a meeting to talk about what they're going to talk about at the meeting. And then… they schedule another meeting. (It's O.K., you're forgiven).

It's Up to the Worker

  ROWE fans say the program, and especially its "all meetings are optional" credo, has acted like a giant suction machine, taking the wasteful meetings and meaningless tasks out of the system. They also say it quickly outs underperformers.

Under ROWE, there's no alternative but to manage via evidence. "We all know that the people who are always, always at the office aren't necessarily the most productive," says Scott Jauman, a Best Buy Six Sigma black belt. "Data are truth."

That's the point. Ressler and Thompson believe people should be free to work whenever they want, wherever they want, so long as they complete their tasks. If you love the office, go for it. Live at your desk. If you love meetings, great. There are still plenty to attend if you want to. The point is to put the choice on the worker, not the manager.

Will Best Buy's ROWE solve the stuck-in-meetings syndrome rampant in Big Business? Plenty of managers at Best Buy still adore their meetings and are still resistant.

In one recent ROWE culture clinic, a work team was totally into the improv theater-like exercises to learn about migrating to ROWE. Everyone, that is, except the boss, who sat in stony, frowny silence. Plenty of people on campus still roll their eyes when they see Ressler and Thompson.

But the two have gut and stamina. Even enemies concede that. When Thompson's mother was pregnant with her, she suffered a cardiac arrest and hemorrhaged, cutting off the blood supply to her uterus. Doctors wanted to remove her uterus. But Thompson's mother, prone on the operating table, refused to sign the consent form.

Six months later, she delivered a healthy girl. "My mother always told me, 'There's no logical explanation for why you're here. You are going to do something in your life, something big'" says Thompson. Ressler was also a preternaturally tenacious type. As a 6-year-old, she stayed up until 2 a.m. to nail a jump-rope routine.

If ROWE succeeds, the payoff in retention and productivity could be huge. If not, critics fear a nasty new jungle for wage slaves, a brutish place where bosses can dump as much work on underlings as they please.

By Michelle Conlin

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