Release year: 2008

Authors: Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

Link to my handwritten notes

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It has been a while since a book blew my mind as much as this one.

Why Work Sucks in an interesting beast, being published 12 years before the global pandemic that revolutionized our approach to remote/hybrid work. It often feels funny to read passages from managers who feel unnerved when a desk is empty during core hours. I don’t know about your workplace, but where I currently work, desks are generally empty the majority of the time, and all my work interactions happen virtually anyway. So, in a sense, the world for which this book was written does not exist anymore.

And yet… The way we think about time at work has not changed a whole lot. Personally, I was shocked to realize how often I would use the clock to measure my success/failure and judge my peers. The book defines this as sludging. In the authors' perfect world, all companies would be Remote-Only Work Environments (ROWEs) where Sludge is absent. Nobody talks about time, ever. Not one judges someone else’s (lack of) presence, ever. As long as the work gets done and bottlenecks are fixed, people are encouraged to just move on with their lives.

It is a utopia. The change in mentality required to make this work (!) is so deep and so vast that I won’t even begin to dream about implementing this in my current workplace. Worse yet, Best Buy, the single company used as the perfect example of a ROWE in the book, has dropped ROWE in 2013 .

What I got out of this book was not the desire to change my workplace. It was the desire to change the importance time has on my judgement of others and myself. Time doesn’t matter. What matters is: can I do the task? If I can’t do the task, is it because it’s unclear? Is it because I’m blocked by someone else? Is it because I’m missing information? In any case, I don’t want it to be because I’m “lazy” or “mismanaging my time.” Reading this book made me realize that when things don’t go my way, I should go to the bottom of why they don’t, with curiosity and generosity. Then, when things do go my way, I can just enjoy that feeling and not feel guilty about having to fill my workload with low priority items just to fill time. In the end, what matters are only the results, not how we got them. Only if the results are not satisfactory should I think about doing things differently.

There is no hard line between work and my life. Work is a part of life. You’d be surprised how much work I have to do on a Saturday: chores, groceries, etc. Every day could feel like Saturday, if we allow ourselves to perform work when the time is right for us.

I’m looking forward to playing with these new ideas.

Félix rating:

⭐ Star quotes:

  1. (p. 3) A ROWE is a Results-Only Work Environment. In a ROWE, you can literally do whatever you want whenever you want as long as your work is getting done.
  2. (p. 13) We all labor under a myth: $$\text{Time} + \text{Physical presence} = \text{Results}$$
  3. (p. 16) Knowledge work requires:
    • fluidity: Ideas can happen anytime, not just between 8 and 5
    • concentration: Being rested and engaged is more important than being on the clock
    • creativity: You’re either on or you’re not on, regardless of the hour.
  4. (p. 16)
    • How long does it take to answer a colleague’s question?
    • How long does it take to have insight about the marketplace?
  5. (p. 17) Presenteeism: Any time you’re physically present and putting in time, but you’re not really doing your job. Your body is in the building, your status is online, but your mind is somewhere else.
  6. (p. 18) If you are adding value to the company, if you are performing, why are you punished by having to fill your time?
  7. (p. 19) Presenteeism happens because the way we measure work performance is wrong.
  8. (p. 22) Perception is not reality.
  9. (p. 23) There is the job you do and the job you appear to be doing:
    • Job: Your tasks and responsibilities
    • Work: Unwritten and unspoken rules you have to play by
  10. (p. 30) Sludge is the negative commentary that occurs naturally in a workplace and is based on (and enforces) outdated beliefs about time and work.
  11. (p. 31) When we judge one another, we’re championing a system that distracts us from what really matters (results) and focuses our energy on what doesn’t (time and place)
  12. (p. 32) If Sludge is the sound of people feeling out of control, for management it’s also an excellent means of control.
  13. (p. 33) Pathological cultures would rather have order than excellence.
  14. (p. 38) If you don’t want to be Sludged by your coworkers, don’t Sludge them.
  15. (p. 43) Flexible work arrangement are the symptom of a lack of trust in employees.
  16. (p. 44) ⭐ The only thing worse than complete mistrust is mistrust masquerading as trust.
  17. (p. 46) If you try to train people to behave differently without addressing the underlying culture, you will be lost. The unwritten rules will trump the written rules every time.
  18. (p. 47) One of the things that makes Sludge so dangerous is that it seems so small.
  19. (p. 49) Different kinds of Sludge:
    • Sludge Anticipation: the mental preparation we all go through if we are expecting a piece of Sludge
    • Sludge Justification: excuses to defend ourselves against Sludge
    • Back Sludge or Sludge Conspiracy
  20. (p. 50) Sludge Anticipation is what enables a culture of fear.
  21. (p. 53) In its sick, twisted way, Sludge brings people together. This is old-fashioned tribalism.
  22. (p. 53) When you create a Sludge Conspiracy, you’re really saying, “We play by the rules. We’re good workers. That person over there is not.”
  23. (p. 53) When we Sludge in groups, we are also creating a public mask for our own deficiencies.
    • You don’t have to be competent if you can make someone else look incompetent.
    • You don’t have to have ideas if you can make someone else look stupid.
  24. (p. 55) Getting rid of Sludge is the first crucial step towards creating a ROWE.
  25. (p. 56) Judge people on their performance, on their ability to meet goals. Take time and place out of the equation.
  26. (p. 56) The great thing about Sludge Justification is that instead of trying to prove you’re dedicated, simply and sincerely ask “Is there anything you need?” or “Anything I can help you with?”
    • The issue shifts from your personal life to whether that person specifically needs you right now. It exposes their poor planning.
  27. (p. 58) The person who is mad at you because you weren’t in your cube at 9 better have a very good reason.
  28. (p. 69) “Flexible schedule” is an oxymoron.
  29. (p. 71) The employer’s job is to create very clear goals and expectations, on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Then it’s up to the employee, with the coaching and guidance of management, to meet those goals and expectations.
  30. (p. 72) ⭐ At the halfway point in your week/project/day, ask “Am I doing what I need to do to meet my goals?” If the answer is yes, then you’re on track. If not, start asking “What do I need to do?”
  31. (p. 77) Trying to create technical change for what is a social problem is usually a disaster.
  32. (p. 80) Real change usually involves loss.
  33. (p. 89) The 13 Guideposts of ROWE:
    1. People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, of the company’s time.
    2. Employees have the freedom to work any way they want.
    3. Every day feels like Saturday.
    4. People have an unlimited amount of “paid time off” as long as the work gets done.
    5. ⭐ Work isn’t a place you go – it’s something you do.
    6. Arriving at the workplace at 2:00pm is not late. Leaving the workplace at 2:00pm is not early.
    7. Nobody talks about how many hours they work.
    8. 🌶️ Every meeting is optional
    9. It’s ok to grocery shop on a Wednesday morning, catch a movie on a Tuesday afternoon, or take a nap on a Thursday afternoon.
    10. There are no work schedules.
    11. Nobody feels guilty, overworked, or stressed-out.
    12. There aren’t any last-minute fire drills.
    13. There is no judgement about how you spend your time.
  34. (p. 91) What does that say about your meeting’s effectiveness and usefulness if people only come because of your title or because it says “mandatory” in the invite? Isn’t there a better way of transmitting that information other than having people sit around a conference room table and listening to people talk?
  35. (p. 94) Just because you can’t be late doesn’t mean you can’t be lame.
  36. (p. 95) Stop playing games with yourself and your time (now I’m working, now I’m not working) and instead focus on what needs to get done.
  37. (p. 96) Managers can have an especially difficult time not Sludging based on the clock because keeping an eye on people (and the clock) was traditionally part of their job.
  38. (p. 98) When it comes to Sludge no one can stay on their high horse for long.
  39. (p. 102) What if someone needs you when you’re at the movies?
    • You can’t always reach people in a traditional work environment. Does it matter if someone is grocery shopping or at a meeting? Either way they’re booked.
  40. (p. 109) When managers move their chess pieces around they are missing out on what those chess pieces might be able to contribute to the conversation about what needs to get done.
  41. (p. 112) So what if someone is quadruple booked? You used to think that person was important. But now you look at that person and wonder what kind of value could they possibly be adding?
  42. (p. 119) If work is something you do and not a place you go, you can’t hide from your job anymore.
  43. (p. 119) In a ROWE you make the most of every interaction because you have to. You can’t count on just stopping by. You can’t waste people’s time like you used to. Interactions become more efficient.
  44. (p. 121) You’re never allowed to use ROWE as an excuse not to do your job.
  45. (p. 122) When a company commits to ROWE, it is committing itself to results, but it is also committing itself to unprecedented levels of trust.
  46. (p. 122) Meeting is not an inherent form of work. A meeting is only work if work gets done because of a meeting.
  47. (p. 123) In a ROWE you can question weekly staff meetings. You can question mandatory training. You are free and encouraged to make sure the way you spend your time is productive.
  48. (p. 123) The point of “every meeting is optional” is to give people the power and the opportunity to have a discussion about value.
  49. (p. 125) When you hold a meeting in a ROWE, you have to be very specific about:
    • what the meeting is for
    • what people are specifically expected to contribute
    • what people are going to take away from the meeting
    • how all of this helps drive concrete, articulated results
  50. (p. 125) One of the ironies of a ROWE is that when people have less time with one another they make those interactions more purposeful and meaningful.
  51. (p. 128) Without clear goals and expectations, a ROWE will break down.
  52. (p. 129) One of the dangers of a ROWE is that people try extra hard to respect one another’s time, which can lead to being overly respectful.
    • Often people solve that problem by putting together a preference list for how they like to be reached.
  53. (p. 141) Jokes about time – even really, really funny ones – erode trust.
  54. (p. 142) Just as it’s not okay to say something racist of sexist in a traditional workplace, judging people’s time is no longer socially acceptable.
  55. (p. 146) Bragging about hours is really championing presenteeism.
  56. (p. 163) When talking about work-life balance issues, stop using the work “flexibility” and start using the word “control”.
  57. (p. 163) Stop using the words “early/late” and antiquated terms like “by the end of business today.”
  58. (p. 172) You lose your credibility when you bring HR to have tough conversations. When your employees aren’t performing, talk to them.
  59. (p. 174) Sending out an email “letting” people take time off for a project well done is another way to make people feel like children. It reinforces the fact that you have control over their time and they don’t. Let people make this decision themselves.