But there is a BIG issue lurking that can sabotage your firm’s move to a truly virtual Anytime, Anywhere Work™ firm and it’s called “SLUDGE.” In “real life,” sludge is defined as a muddy substance, dirty oil, sea ice, mire, muck and any number of other unproductive substances that slow or bog things down. We first heard of sludge in a business context in Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution by Cali Ressler and Jody Thomson. In their book, which teaches firms the fundamentals to a Results Only Work Environment™ (ROWE™), they define sludge “as any negative comment we make that serves to reinforce old ideas about how work gets done.” And we see sludge as one of the most significant threats undermining your firm’s flexible culture
We’ve been sharing our results from our ConvergenceCoaching 2016 Anytime, Anywhere Work™ Survey addressing a variety of flex topics in our ATAWW™ blog series. One result the survey shows is that firm leaders in the MAJORITY of firms responding – 55% – feel that flex is “a necessary evil” or worse, resist flex or don’t offer flexible work programs at all. Further, nearly a fifth of all firms responding indicated that one of the negative results of implementing Anytime, Anywhere Work™ programs is that it “has highlighted that we don’t have top-down support for our programs.”
This is where sludge comes in. Leaders and followers from firms across the globe engage in sludge related to team members participating in flexible work arrangements – and most especially those working remotely. Like anything else we say we’re committed to in our firms – acceptance starts at the top. And, we have seen and heard sludge from all levels within firms, including firm administrators and HR professionals. So, what does sludge look like?
- “Did you get your beauty rest this morning?” said to an employee who works an alternate hour’s arrangement and works from 10:00am-6:00pm
- “I forgot you worked here! (ha-ha)” said to a remote employee who lives in a different city and is attending your quarterly meeting in person
- “What’s the business purpose that you need to work from home on Thursdays?” said to an employee planning to take advantage of the new work-from-home policy that was just shared with the team
- “I’m only coming in on Saturday for lunch so the partners see me here and know I’m a team player and putting in the extra hours during busy season,” a team members says to a peer about trying to “look good” on Saturday
- “Where is Mary when I need her?” exclaimed outside Mary’s empty cubicle by a manager or partner when Mary has an approved arrangement with the firm to leave at 3:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays
- “I’m not sure John has the drive to be a partner, because he just doesn’t seem to put the time in. For instance, he leaves for dinner at home most busy season nights,” said by a partner to the partner group about a manager who blows away his chargeable hours and hits his billing goals but leaves at 5:30 pm during busy season two days a week to have dinner with his family – meaning he’s putting in the effort from home where they can’t “see” it
We hear phrases like these, and more, a LOT and they are holding firms back from embracing the number one motivator of young leaders – having more control over when and where they work. Sludge often shows up as a joke or is said in a teasing manner; however, the subject of the sludge doesn’t feel that way. Sludge is damaging to the support of your flexible work programs – and worse, detrimental to your team’s morale and—ultimately — retention. When statements like these are made, they erode the trust and credibility of the firm and its leadership, because those on the receiving end feel like any flex policy or approved alternate work arrangement is “in name only” and not supported. That can lead to team members feeling like they can’t (or shouldn’t) take advantage of the flexible work programs your firm says it offers, so many team members choose to leave instead. This points to another way sludge is damaging – it erodes straight talk by team members, because they become afraid of retribution for asking for what they really want or need to build a career with your firm. It squelches innovation and creativity, too, if there is a feeling that true change won’t be supported even if it’s offered.
What can firm leaders do to address sludge then? Try the following strategies:
- Give sludge a name in your organization. If you see it rear its ugly head, call it for what it is: sludge. Teach about sludge at all levels of the firm, starting with your partner group, and make a commitment to stamp it out.
- Identify ways that YOU participate in sludge. What comments do you make about your flex programs, remote workers, or those on alternative work schedules? If you find it difficult, start by identifying those things that irritate you or that you complain about, and then start noticing what you say about them. Give others permission to call you on your sludge.
- Start cleaning up the sludge happening around you. Stop the action and ask what changes can be made when you hear sludge from a partner or team member or when you notice sludge that is not flexible work friendly (i.e. lunches on Saturdays under the guise of taking care of team members who are working, but what it truly promotes is mandatory in-person weekend work during busy season).
- Respect and honor those taking advantage of the Anytime, Anywhere Work™ arrangements your firm offers. This may require advanced planning and increased communication to ensure they – and you – have what’s needed to complete assignments, meet client deadlines and achieve service standards. It includes ensuring those on alternate or flexible work arrangements are put forward for client work, involvement in firm initiatives, or promotions just like the team members who work in the office during “normal” work hours, where possible. It also means providing feedback to team members when something isn’t working so they have an opportunity to address it.
- Promote success stories. Highlight flexible work arrangements or places where those on alternative work arrangements have had successes or been promoted. Include strategies they used to promote communication, client testimonials, and innovative collaboration ideas or technology tools.
Identifying and eliminating sludge will set the stage for success as you move to an Anytime, Anywhere Work™ environment. Have the courage to take steps to “clean up” your office today! Please let us know how you are doing. We’d love to hear from you!
About the Author
Tamera Loerzel is a partner of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership, management and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.