Friday, 7 May 2010

The puncture in Cameron’s inflated society

Even if David Cameron manages to bargain his way to the top of a coalition government, the Tories have floundered in their attempts to convince the British public that an unwieldy state should be replaced by community power. In a referendum for Cameron’s Big Society, the Tory leader has failed pretty convincingly. As Tim Montgomerie concludes on ConservativeHome:

"Unforgivably, the big society message favoured by the Tory head of strategy, Steve Hilton, was never poll-tested, and failed to cut through with most voters–and even frightened some."

Labour has dismissed the Big Society as an election gimmick, but there are signs in the private sector that the decentralisation of command is gaining currency. ROWE, which stands for Results Only Work Environment, is an attempt to rebalance the working environment, replacing so-called presenteeism with extreme flexibility. In lieu of command and control, employees get to dictate when and how much they work, the only stipulation being that they meet their individual targets. In a ROWE, it doesn’t matter what hours you work as long as the job gets done.

ROWE is a trade-off that rewards productivity with work-life autonomy. According to ROWE’s architects, former Best Buy employees Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, eighty per cent of lost productivity can be attributed to presenteeism, an all too common attitude in which employees believe simply turning up to work is enough to warrant their monthly pay slips. ROWE decentralises workplace decision-making, so that employees set their own schedules. The goal is to empower through increased responsibility. Says Ressler:

"People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer's time, or the company's money. This promotes a more engaged workforce motivated to not only produce something, but to produce something meaningful."

There are of course clear disadvantages to such a distinct redistribution of rights, not least of which is the fact that most organisations require more than a skeleton staff present during normal working hours to deal with that inconvenient thing known as the customer. It’s also argued that focusing too heavily on results dilutes team spirit, turning workers into selfish, unilateral robots—empowered, but inconsiderate to the needs of the company as a whole.

It’s a fine balance. Gain motivated, productive employees; risk creating disparate self-interest. Now consider the way local government decisions are made. Would Cameron’s Big Society have followed a similar path?

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