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“Let my people go surfing” Part 2: Flexibility

April 9, 2011

This is my second post about the book “Let My People Go Surfing”. The book was written by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing & equipment brand Patagonia. To see my first post “Do it your way, have fun” click here

Part 2 – Flexibility

One of the lessons of surfing, or powder skiing, or any of those kind of sports, is that you don’t go surfing next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. ‘Cause you may show up there and it’s flat or blown out and… you’re a loser.

Early in the process of setting up Patagonia, Yvon and his staff put their heads together to come up with a set of values they wanted to guide their business. It was clear from the outset that Patagonia would not simply adhere to common corporate practices just because they were common, they were going to start from scratch and make their own rules.

One of the first “rules” that was on the chopping block was the idea of rigidity in the workplace. They wanted to have flexibility in how they got their work done, where they would do it and at what time of the day or night they would do it.

One of the policies at Patagonia HQ was that if staff felt the need to do something like take to the waves for an hour or two, or go rock climbing, that would be fine, so long as they got the work done at a later stage.

So, that means you have to hire very responsible people and let them get there work done whenever they feel like. As long as it doesn’t impact other people and the work gets done I don’t care when they work.

Stuff like that would not seem odd if you heard about it today, in fact it seems exactly like the sort of HR policy that a Google, or a Facebook might implement at their offices. But this was back in the 1970’s when American business was all about power suits, hierarchy and buildings that you stayed holed up in between 9 and 5 (and probably many hours after that).

Yvon led this relaxed attitude to work from the front. As the CEO, he used to hold board meetings outdoors out behind the offices on a few couches they had put there. Occasionally he and his management team would take hikes up into the mountains together and hold important meetings there. They knew what they liked, they knew who there were, and they also knew that implementing needless restrictions on how they did business wasn’t going to improve their quality of life or even the bottom line.

Yvon’s policy seems like a forerunner to a lot the attitudes towards work we can see put forward by people like Tim Ferriss and the guys at 37 Signals. They talk often of the ROWE, Results Only Work Environment. So long as the work gets done, and done well who cares how or where it is done? Who says that every worker will work best between 9 and 5? And what if people find that they are more productive when working somewhere other than their cubicle?

There are of course jobs where this isn’t possible, if you are a customer service representative for example, you can’t just abandon the phone, and there are numerous other positions where the “work anywhere, any time” attitude just wouldn’t work. But as Yvon put is himself

As long as it doesn’t impact other people and the work gets done I don’t care when they work.”

If it affects people then it may not be possible to break free from traditional working hours/locations.

Yvon and his colleagues realised that work is not something simply to be “put up with” or “endured”, and for that to be the case you have to allow yourself to be flexible and get work done when it makes sense to do so.

In the next post I will talk about my experiences trying live a flexible work lifestyle. So see you there!

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