QUIT: Sludge

[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end.  I’m calling these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]

 

On Monday, I introduced you to the Results-Only Work Environment initiative (ROWE).  Of which, if you couldn’t tell, I am a gungho proponent.

But what I’m a proponent of means nothing when my company is paying me to do things their way.

So, where does that leave me, and anyone else who’s become a ROWE convert but is still stuck in a job that is decidedly non-ROWE?  Aside from leaving pamphlets in the break room or bringing a soap box to the next department meeting, what can we really do to change things where we are?

Quite a lot, I believe.  The 9-5 mentality is deeply ingrained in our culture, and one of the ways to bring it down is to start chipping away at it from within.  You may not be able to march up to your CEO and say, “Here’s how we’re changing things, buddy!”  But there’s plenty you can do to introduce the ROWE philosophy into your workplace, shed light on the ridiculousness of the current system, and make your job just a little less miserable.  One of the biggest things is to point out and eradicate Sludge.

 

What Sludge Is

 “Sludge” is the ROWE term for any remark that reinforces the notion that work = butt-in-chair time and not results achieved.  Sludge is often snide, frequently mean-spirited, and usually meant to make us feel bad for failing to live up to the way we’re “supposed” to be working.

You’re already well-acquainted with Sludge, I guarantee it.  See if any of these remarks sounds familiar:

  • “Nice of you to join us!”
  • “Guess who just strolled in!”
  • “Her kids seem to get sick an awful lot…”
  • “How many vacation days have you taken, now?”
  • “Must be nice to ‘work’ from home.”
  • “Is he ever at his desk?”
  • “Well, I’ve been here since 9:00…”

Ringing any bells?

 

Why Sludge Sucks

Sludge is a powerful force in maintaining the 9-5 mentality because it reinforces an outdated concept of what “work” looks like.  It implies that “real” work can only be done between the hours of 9-5, parked at your desk, and that anyone who operates outside these prescribed conditions must somehow be goofing off or getting away with something.

It doesn’t take into account the fact that most work can now be done anytime, anywhere; that people have lives and deserve to be allowed to take care of them; and that truly grownup and responsible adults know how to manage their jobs and their lives in such a way that both areas get the attention they deserve.

Sludge also gives traditional 9-5ers the chance to make themselves look like dedicated little worker bees regardless of how well they’re actually performing.  Mary might be a rock star employee who does twice as much work as everyone else, but if Maureen can point out that Mary’s come in 15 minutes late every day this week, well, now who looks like the diligent employee?  Nevermind that Maureen spends half her workday playing Solitaire and looking up cute kitten pictures online…

 

What I’m Doing About It

Now that I recognize Sludge and what it does to people’s morale and impression of others, I absolutely cannot stand it.  And I’m making it my mission not only to stop flinging Sludge myself (it’s amazing how often it can slip out without even meaning to), but also to point out whenever I hear someone else doing it.

We have some attorneys who put in 8 hour days on the weekends, check their Blackberries on vacation, and rarely see their families because they’re eating, sleeping, and breathing their cases.  So when a secretary who spends her 8 hours answering phones and doing light typing—and then gets to leave her job completely behind her once 5:00 hits—makes a snide comment about an attorney taking another half-day or “working” from home (Sludgers always say this in quotation marks because clearly these people aren’t really working), I see red.  Sludge is condescending, judgmental, and based entirely on an outdated notion of “work” that doesn’t even hold up anymore.

Which is why I am putting my foot down—politely, but consistently.  The next time I hear another “’working’ from home” remark, I’m going to respond: “Poor [attorney’s name here].  Seems like she’s already doing enough work from home on the weekends.  I can’t believe how much time she puts in.”  Or another “hasn’t he taken all his vacation days?”, I’ll be saying,  “He works so much after hours, I can’t say I hold it against him.”

I refuse to let someone’s work ethic be judged by antiquated standards.  I refuse to let my coworkers, friends, or family feel guilty for getting sick or risk killing themselves speeding into work to get there by 8:59.  Believing in ROWE as strongly as I do, I refuse to aid and abet the current system by getting jealous if someone takes a Friday off or dares to go over their lunch hour.  I am making my stand, in the small, persistent way that I can, and it starts now.

At least until I can work up the balls for a soap box.

 

For More Information

 For more information on R.O.W.E., check out Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson’s book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.  You can also visit the R.O.W.E. site and sign up for their blog there.

Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Julie AClearSign

    Oh dear.  That reminds me very much of my last job.  Incessently slimey, gossipy, and nasty people.  Unfortunately, so was ownership and management – not sure if they just wanted to shut the gossipers up or if they really believed them but “perception is everything.”  Beware to protect yourself as you take your stand – sometimes being right, better, and powerful sets you up as a target to be shot down.  OK, all of the time.  Be insideous with your betterment and you may even win the upper hand in your battle.

    • Julie:

      Thanks for the word of warning.  You’re right, I’m sure I won’t make any friends by pointing out Sludge.  But I’m going to be as polite and respectful as I can about it–more standing up for the Sludgee than reprimanding the Sludger.  I hope that it might make people think twice about judging others.  Wish me luck!

      • You get all the luck in the world from me – and BTW come back and tell me how you did!

  • I love the thought of ROWE. I even contemplated dropping your article on the Director of HR’s desk. 

    One other thing about it – an economic theory states that if you reduce consumer (employee) transaction costs, you can charge them more (pay them less). 

    For instance, a transaction cost might be travel time. 

    If a company is willing to implement ROWE, the employees lucky enough to be in jobs that are supported by this type of work environment could actually be paid less and still be comfortable with their jobs. If they’re working from home, they’re going to be spending less on gas, mileage, and time. 

    I’m not talking a ton less, just like a dollar an hour more for long commuters. 

    Pretty cool for the employers side of things, no?

    • Daisy:

      I’ve actually considered dropping the whole “Why Work Sucks” book on my boss’s desk.  Or putting it right on the break room table.  Anonymously, of course.  😀

      The cost-effective argument is actually another thing in favor of ROWE that I left out for fear of the post getting too long.  You’re totally right–you cut back on commute time/expenses, company resources used (and wasted over 8 ineffective hours), etc.  Good business sense all around, for employers *and* employees.

  • Anonymous

    My office is semi-ROWE friendly. There’s a pretty liberal policy on telework. But there really isn’t much sludge going on, which I hadn’t thought about explicitly before you mentioned it. We complain a lot, but we don’t judge flexi-work or vacations. Thanks for the reminder that my workplace is not so bad.

    The ROWE concept is interesting.

    • You’re definitely one of the lucky ones.  My office is small and flexible only in that we don’t have an official HR dept. or employee handbook.  So not as Big Brother-y, but the “rules” are still in place.

      The unfair thing is that some of our employees are putting in ROWE-like hours (working whenever, wherever), but still being constricted by the traditional rules and regulations like having to be here from 9-5, having their vacation days counted, etc.  Their “flexibility” actually works against them because it means they’re really just doing twice the work yet being punished by policies that shouldn’t in fairness apply to them.

      I’m glad to hear there are some workplaces out there that are beginning to understand this, though.  Change won’t come quickly, but I do believe it’s underway…

    • You’re definitely one of the lucky ones.  My office is small and flexible only in that we don’t have an official HR dept. or employee handbook.  So not as Big Brother-y, but the “rules” are still in place.

      The unfair thing is that some of our employees are putting in ROWE-like hours (working whenever, wherever), but still being constricted by the traditional rules and regulations like having to be here from 9-5, having their vacation days counted, etc.  Their “flexibility” actually works against them because it means they’re really just doing twice the work yet being punished by policies that shouldn’t in fairness apply to them.

      I’m glad to hear there are some workplaces out there that are beginning to understand this, though.  Change won’t come quickly, but I do believe it’s underway…

  • Anonymous

    My office is semi-ROWE friendly. There’s a pretty liberal policy on telework. But there really isn’t much sludge going on, which I hadn’t thought about explicitly before you mentioned it. We complain a lot, but we don’t judge flexi-work or vacations. Thanks for the reminder that my workplace is not so bad.

    The ROWE concept is interesting.

  • This actually reminds me of the episode on The Office where Pam and Jim go to this cook-out for Dunder-Mifflin and Charles (this guy who “subbed” while Michael was out) was like, “It must be nice to get a break from relaxing” or some snide remark. Jim is kinda like ROWE – he  finishes he work quickly and has nothing to do for the rest of the day, so he goofs off. 

    It makes me hate Charles – not that I liked him anyway! – that he would still be upset over how Jim works just because it doesn’t align with what he thinks. Ugh. 

    I haven’t worked in an office setting before, I can’t comment anecdotally, but I think generally, I hate projecting and people who try to police others. 

    • I love your Office references!  As you can see from the pic I chose, I’m a fan myself.  🙂

      I was actually thinking, as I wrote this post, of the episode where Dwight gives Jim this big spiel about how much time he’s wasting on the company dime–so Jim decides to get out a stopwatch and time every single second that Dwight uses “not working.”  When Dwight sneezes, yawns, takes a sip of water, or goes to the bathroom, that’s “slack off” time that Jim records.  It gets to the point where Dwight starts peeing in a bottle under his desk to avoid “slacking off.”

      An excellent example of just how ridiculous the whole “we need to see you working all the time or you can’t be a good employee” philosophy is.

      p.s.  If you haven’t worked in an office setting before, The Office is a great capturer of many of the ridiculous aspects of office life–although I wish in many ways that my office was more like Dunder Mifflin.  What I wouldn’t give for a basement dance party break room or an office Olympics of my own!

  • Pretty Ponies

    The environment you describe doesn’t seem productive for anyone, is exhausting, unhealthy, albeit very very common and accepted as “normal” in too many organizations.

  • Pretty Ponies

    P.S.  I tried introducing the concept of ROWE and productivity that comes with flexibility and got no buy in.  

    • Yeah, it’s not an easy sell right off the bat–even to people who would love to work in a ROWE.  The Way Things Are is so engrained in people’s minds that they have trouble believing a ROWE would *really* work.  I know, I’ve come up against the same resistance.  (But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying.)  😀

  • Cordelia, I love your Quit series.  Really inspiring.

    Even though I’m a digital nomad who frequently works at home, I still have to deal with my fair share of SLUDGE and I hate it!  Thank you for putting a name on it and defining it.

    I’m so sick of people thinking that just cause they put in long hours, they think they’re being more productive and accomplishing more.  If anything, I usually notice that those are the people who are on Gchat the most and have the least efficient productivity systems.

    I’m down to join you in this war against SLUDGE.  It’s time to end it.  Let’s go!

    • Hells yeah!  To the streets!  🙂

      I find it really interesting to hear that someone who’s achieved the “digital nomad” lifestyle still faces Sludge.  That surprised me at first, but the more you think about it, it makes perfect sense.  If people are going to resent  workers in their company who are trying to paint outside the lines, I can only imagine how they’d feel about someone who’s gone off completely on his own.

      And you are so right about people appearing productive vs. actually being productive.  That’s the whole game that ROWE is trying to bring down.  SO many people get by at their jobs by just putting in the bare minimum and looking “busy” while they play around on Facebook.  It’s about time we reward the workers who are efficient, dedicated, and talented by giving them a little extra trust and freedom!

  • Clare Bear

    THIS IS MY FAVORITE ONE SO FAR.

  • SP

    I like the idea of ROWE, and I’m grateful that my office seems mostly sludge free.  People take vacations, and that is respected.  People have lives outside of work, and as long as the work gets done, no one seems to judge much.  A lot of my work is very collaborative and I see clear benefits from most people being in the office for at least a portion of the “normal” hours (though this certainly could be limited to 3-4 days a week if needed).  I know you can collaborate in a lot of ways, but face to face conversations do have a huge benefit (at least for my work).  They are flexible on start/stop times, but we are generally expected to work 40 hours each week.

    What I find… confusing…  are people who do spend a lot of time sitting around on Facebook/gchat at work because they are efficient & bright and get their work done quickly.  They like the idea of ROWE because they don’t want to have to sit there all day doing nothing, which makes sense

    I won’t say that has never happened to me, but it is not the norm, because I work to get more responsibilities and more work.  If you can do your job in 3-4 hours a day, something is wrong.    This isn’t “results only” where people work any time and work really hard for results.  This is people wanting to work 20 hours a week and get paid for 40. 

    But then again, what if you can do your work in 20 hours, and the guy next to you takes 40 to do the same work?  What should that mean?   And who sets the baseline for what kind of results constitute how much, especially in jobs where it isn’t always clear cut? All the costing I have seen of based on hourly rates – and I wonder how (and if) we could move from that… 

    Maybe I should read the book 🙂

    • I can see where the confusion would come in when discussing workers who get their day’s work done quickly.  In some positions (like data entry), it could be argued that if you can process your reports twice as fast as your coworkers, you should just be given additional reports so you can get even more work done.  Although that’s based on a set workday of x number of hours, and could lead to the argument (as you point out) of how to determine which “results” are worth what.  If an employee is paid for working 8 hours and can get twice as many reports done, shouldn’t he get twice as much pay as his slower coworkers?  On the other hand, if he is simply paid to process x numbers of reports per day, then he should be free to go once he’s hit that number.  In jobs where “results” can be easily quantified like this, in terms of number of tasks achieved, ROWE opens up a whole new argument.

      However, in jobs like mine (legal office setting), there is an ebb and flow of work where some days there are 5 tasks to get done and some day there are 25.  “Results” in this case simply means “getting your tasks done by the time they are due, in the best way possible.”  If I have 5 tasks and complete them by noon, I am still required to sit at my desk for the next 5 hours *just in case* something else comes up.  Under ROWE, I could argue that I could be just as “available” for projects by e-mail, phone, etc., and that my work can just as easily be done remotely from home.  The job is still getting done, just as efficiently and well as it would be if I were at my desk.  However, I have the freedom and discretion to use the time in between to conduct the rest of my life, rather than being tethered to a desk just because someone wants to see me sitting there in case they need me.

      Loving the debate you opened up here–excellent insights and questions!

  • 🙂

  • crw

    Ironically, I just experienced this situation as a brand new employee. In an unrelated email, my “boss” threw in an aside that employees get 30 minutes for lunch and don’t normally “work” from home or in coffee shops. It was couched in the need to absorb the culture in my new workplace and to avoid negative perceptions: Sludge.
    I was surprised that my role (sales) is expected to be executed in desk-parker fashion after 20 years of demonstrable successful working in the field. Perhaps I should have done a more thorough job discussing expectations in the interviews?

    • Gah. “Negative perceptions.” Excuse me while I hack up a little. Screw perceptions. What they really are is biases and judgments.

      Perceptions are indeed the entire issue here. Who gives a rat’s hindside where or when you do your work if you do it (and do it well)? I’ll tell you who: coworkers who aren’t as talented and are hoping to coast on their gold star attendance, and managers who haven’t learned that if you hire experienced, hardworking adults, they have the right to be treated as adults (and will in fact work better and harder for you if they are). Unfortunately, I don’t know how much luck you would have had if you’d inquired into expectations at your interview. We’re not as a culture to the point yet where common sense and respect are the modus operandi of management. A few rare companies are seeing the light and going in that direction, but for the most part, it’s still the way most workplaces are.

      Which doesn’t stop me from trying to pick the mindset apart every chance I get. 😀

  • crw

    Kelly,
    I think you nailed it. the 9-5 is so ingrained into our culture it will take more than an honest, thoughtful blogger such as yourself, and a few authors to turn multimillion-dollar soul-sucking machines into havens of self-actualizing ROWE-inspired workplaces. And, I agree: the culture is passed down from the top. It takes Leaders comfortable with trusting their colleagues to be adults and engaged in their work to change the paradigm.

    • ROWE is definitely a philosophy that won’t happen overnight, but slowly and surely it’s gaining more and more traction. I know my voice as one blogger isn’t huge, but I will shout ROWE far and wide every opportunity I get, because every time one of us points out the flaws of the current system, a little dent is made. And others see that dent, and some of them go on to make dents of their own.

      Do I think I’m going to change my own workplace culture by my little stands against Sludge? Radically? Probably not. But I’ll hopefully get people thinking. I’ll hopefully ruffle up a few preconceptions, and that’s all that I can do. So I will do it, with a right good will. 🙂

  • Great conversation, indeed, Cordelia!

    Looks like, from a year on, there are 2 related but different issues brought up here ~ ROWE (as I understand it) is/was(?) a campaign to change the whole organization of “the workplace” in general – which I don’t think can ever apply across-the-board, because of different goals and different expected outcomes in different businesses and departments.

    “Sludge” is bad attitudes in the office and non-acceptance of differences – in working styles, in learning styles, hell, in hair styles, and can be found in any type of organization.

    ROWE seems to apply to changing the whole dynamic and metrics of workplaces… and some simply can’t be altered in that direction – an assembly line, for example (not only mechanical ones, either – anything where *I* can’t do my part of the job until *you* get yours done and pass it on to me… ) Or, service-on-demand type positions – enough somebodies have to be in the store any time the doors are open, and that must be scheduled in advance, to avoid personal and business chaos.

    • That’s one of the biggest questions when it comes to ROWE, but they’ve actually got ways to get a ROWE mentality into your company even if it’s a more service-oriented, punch-the-clock type environment like a store. Check it out: http://www.gorowe.com/about/results-case-studies/