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Leah Eichler

You don't need to be a workaholic to succeed Add to ...

At the risk of appearing ancient to readers of the millennial generation, I remember when the term “workaholic” was a positive attribute.

Admittedly, many people still live, eat and breathe their job and I’m no stranger to the concept myself. Yet a shift in thinking appears to be under way, punctuated by the recent media circus that ensued after working mom and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said she leaves work at 5:30 p.m.. This habit started when she first had children but it’s only in the past two years that she decided to publicly acknowledge it.

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Isn’t it time to take a cue from the woman seen as the poster child for successful female professionals and rethink how we work?

Innovative work options do exist for those bent on approaching work with an eye on results rather than the clock – a model that seems to appeal to many women. In corporate speak, it is often referred to as ROWE, or a results-only work environment.

Not to be confused with flex-time, ROWE describes a workplace with clear performance objectives that allows employees to achieve them in the way they see fit, explained Alison Konrad, professor of organizational behaviour at University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

Employees choose their method of work, their hours and location. For companies that provide innovative work environments, its effect on a professional can be life-altering.

Andrea Lekushoff launched her online public relations firm, Broad Reach Communications, four years ago with the idea to “turn the traditional agency model on its head.” It now includes more than 20 associates from across the country, all of whom previously held senior roles in traditional PR agencies. About 80 per cent of them are women who, like Ms. Lekushoff, left traditional companies because rigid office hours.

“My associates tell me that they cannot put a price on the benefits of working at Broad Reach,” Ms. Lekushoff said.

Rather than relying on a billable-hour model, where employees must fill a quota, she matches associates with clients based on expertise, interest level and the number of hours required for the job.

This is not a model for slackers. Since employees work on contract, performance remains essential to securing future work. “Everyone is motivated to do their best work and is accountable for both quality work and results,” she explained.

In the legal field, Toronto-based Cognition LLP is another example of a firm turning corporate culture on its head. Founded by Joe Milstone and Rubsun Ho, the firm offers companies the option to hire in-house counsel on a need-to-have basis.

Cognition has no partnership track, no articling students or junior lawyers and a minimal office staff. Most of its 30-plus lawyers work as consultants, who choose their own hours and clients. They are paid variably, so there is no pressure for employees to work more or for the lawyers to take on a certain number of engagements.

“It is a very atypical law firm structure,” Mr. Milstone said. Traditional law firms, he said, hire associates at a fixed cost and “squeeze them like a sponge.”

“That was very intentionally not the way we wanted to practice our business … there are lots of opportunities that are brought to [the associates]and they get to say yes or no,” Mr. Milstone explained, adding that many of the lawyers work full-time hours or more.

Not surprisingly, when the firm began it appealed to women; its first eight or nine lawyers were women (though the gender ratio is now evenly split). Mr. Milstone believes the factors that originally enticed women, such as flexibility and diversity of work, increasingly interest men as well.

Will more employers adopt a ROWE model? Dr. Konrad believes companies have a long way to go before embracing this idea on a bigger scale. Unfortunately, this may dissuade recent graduates from joining those corporate ranks.

A study published by Dr. Konrad last year showed that honours business administration students yearned for a meaningful career that would allow them to contribute to business and society while maintaining “balance” in their lives.

The students specifically stated that they did not want to become workaholics, whose only identity resided in their professional lives. As more of these students exit academia, let’s see if corporations start listening.

Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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