What work traditions need to go away?

One theme of my book The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work, is questioning aging work practices. Particularly ones followed our of tradition without evidence they contribute to quality of work.

Here’s a list of work practices that should be reconsidered: is there any evidence these contribute to work performance in any way?

  • Dress codes (ties, skirts)
  • Measurement by time, not performance
  • Casual Fridays
  • Hour long meetings by default
  • Mission statements
  • 9 to 5 work day
  • unpaid overtime
  • The cc: line on email (this was suggested 4 times)
  • Corner offices
  • Conference calls
  • Unequal pay
  • Anti-morale morale events

This list was generated from replies to two twitter posts .

While I’m happy to hear gripes about practices done poorly, ideally I’m looking for practices that have no value no matter how well they’re done.

What work traditions do you think need to go away?


27 Responses to “What work traditions need to go away?”

  1. Ryan Adams

    Dress Codes: After a long time hating these, I’ve come to understand that a REASONABLE dress code (business casual, for example) is a good idea. For one, any customers who come through will judge partially based on what employees wear, for two, the ability of an employee to stick to an agreed-upon reasonable dress code shows their understanding of why appearances matter for a company.

    Meetings should really be no more than a half hour, with a few exceptions for small groups with strong agendas.

    I would favor measurement by performance over time, but in most jobs, you can’t prove your performance all the time. My boss works several states away, and he relies on my status report as well as the reports of the managers in the plant I work at. My boss is the only one who understands my performance, whereas those managers only know how long I’ve been at the office, generally. Therefore it’s a combination of time and performance that paints a successful picture for me.

    I believe in flexible work days/schedules. I’m a big fan of the straight-8 policy. As long as you get your 8 hours in, who cares if it is 9 – 5. I believe this is especially popular amongst engineers and other inward-facing company employees.

    Unpaid Overtime: As an exempted salaried employee, I don’t receive overtime pay, but I do get a flexible work schedule, and if I need a day off, I can often get one from my boss without spending an official vacation day. My unpaid overtime is balanced out in this way.

    The CC line is incredibly important, in my opinion. Perhaps the real issue with this is in that people don’t know when to and when not to use it. The TO: line is for the actual subject of the email, the CC: line is for others who are directly involved in or following a given subject/project. If anything needs to be removed, it’s the BCC: line. That thing is dangerous, from a political perspective.

    Corner Offices: What, do you expect everyone to work in a round building? Appearances DO matter, as much as I hate to admit it.

    Conference Calls: I don’t know how you could operate without these. As a regional engineer working across several plants and with many different contractors and project engineers/managers, I couldn’t operate without them.

    Mission Statements: These CAN be very helpful, though I feel they’re often not. At my last company, I found myself constantly wondering what the hell the managers were actually trying to do with the company. We were constantly shifting directions as a company, and no one knew where we were actually going. I think the point of a mission statement is to let the employees and the world know exactly what the company’s goals are.

    Unequal pay and anti-morale events are obviously bad ideas. The anti-morale events that you have reference in the article are just poorly run company events. I do believe that company events can be beneficial and helpful. As for unequal pay, I believe that is a completely unethical practice.

    I’m trying to think of other practices that have no value at all, and I’m having a very hard time. Almost every practice seems to work in at least some industry or under some specific conditions.

    1. Jason

      I prefer corner meeting rooms.

      As for appearances, not looking like a hobo is one thing. Looking polished is something else entirely. I don’t think you’re going to have much luck with the development community convincing them of form over function.

      Besides you shouldn’t have customers wandering through the dev dept anyway. Mostly because they will hear things that nobody should have to hear. But also because customers with unchaperoned access to the developers is a recipe for massive scope creep.

  2. Jon R.

    Annual Performance Reviews: It shouldn’t take a year to get feedback on how you are doing, it should be done weekly and daily. Waiting a year to give someone a needed raise is also stupid, you should be paying them what they are worth to you NOW. Of course nothing beats getting top marks that should get you a raise but it’s not in the budget. So sorry.

    1. Jason

      It shouldn’t take a year, I agree. I think it’s pain avoidance. Once they give you feedback, it may jar you out of your stupor and remind you that there are other places to work. This has happened to me a few times. Either I’m great but there’s no money for raises, or I don’t deserve a raise because I’m not great at everything (if you treat everybody like a generalist at review time, you can save a LOT of money!).

      They have to do reviews, and 12 months is as long as your executive team will allow your boss to go without giving you feedback. You can reduce turnover by about 6 months just by using annual reviews (people can go up to 18 months before their first review, and 30 months before the second)

  3. Chrisite

    Hiring people and then laying them off when the company hits a rough spot. Makes it hard to find people when thing pick up again.

    1. Martinator


      How about hiring people and then laying them off when the quarterly profit margins aren’t as big as the upper management and board members would like. Doing so even thought he company is still profitable, growing, and generating revenue. Then wonder why they get horrible reviews on GlassDoor.com and have trouble hiring good workers…

      1. Christie

        This method of operating has become the standard for our healthcare and education systems. It certainly worked that way when I was working in oil and gas as well. I could live with it if the layoffs did not go hand in hand with large executive bonus payments…

  4. Chris

    Nooooo, leave those casual fridays alone! And add casual mondays, tuesdays, wednesdays and thursdays …

    Oh really … ;)

  5. Warwick

    Useless business cards – tell me more than just a name and contact details.

  6. Melissa

    Get rid of years of service awards! Stop rewarding people for sticking around and sucking up! Okay, that is a bit harsh but really why reward someone just because they stuck around? Why not reward people based their work, quality, quantity, how it effects the bottom line. I think that is something to incentivize.

    1. Scott

      Good point – service awards are another kind of time vs. performance measurement. “Seniority” is another way time surfaces – so what if Fred has been here 5 years, if Sally has been here 4 years but is twice as valuable because of her output?

      1. sashank

        Am curious , how one would measure “quality” in the name of performance ? or how one would measure “performance” at all ? for example how would you say Sally was more valuable than Fred ? in terms of revenue generation ? in terms of defect found from her software ? if sally and fred worked on same project, same module, same feature (basically given same constraints ) independently can you determine who did better ?

        1. Melissa

          I think it depends on the type of work being done. If it is a customer service rep you could measure performance based on the number of calls handled or satisfactory customer surveys. In the case of a product being produced you could measure defects, customer complains, etc; There are a myriad of factors related to the employees level of responsibility and contribution to a product, project or just the company overall. I realize that is a vague answer but it would really just depend.

      2. sashank

        The point am trying to drive is , there is no single scale to compare two individual’s performances. if we start measuring based on sales calls or defects or what ever numbers , down the line people would realize even that tradition should go away . each person when subjected to different constraints and challenges would respond differently.

  7. John James Jacoby

    I’d like to see a doing-away with the expectation that work-related meta-activities like replying to conversations (via email, chat, or otherwise), traveling, research, and meetings (scheduled or impromptu), do not count towards hours worked each week.

    These types of non-work have the potential to take up large portions of any given day, and they do actually count as “work” even if they are not laborious or contributing to finishing a task.

    To use a common analogy, if you need to build a chair, and the spec involves material only found 2,000 kilometers away, there is cost associated with researching and traveling to obtain that material. You need to communicate with the manufacturer, plan the trip, etc…

    The cost of “lost time” from on-task activities that distract hammer from nail should not be the builders to bear.

  8. Doug Shaw

    This is a super post Scott, and a great idea about challenging some of these ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’ notions. Earlier this week, a friend of mine asked people to contribute to a sideways look at the future world of work through the Twitter lens of #workplacemyths. The results are funny and painful and useful too. If you don’t mind, I’m including a link to the Storify that is emerging – I hope you and your readers will find it interesting.


    Thanks – Doug

  9. Donald Jessop

    I have worked in the private sector and I have worked in a government and there are some strange work traditions that need to be erased.

    Office Size. There is an unwritten rule at my current employer that a contractor cannot have a work area larger than the work area of any employee. Seriously. Regardless of how much space they need, it cannot be more than the smallest space that an employee has. This causes some issues when the contractor is a project manager and frequently has people dropping by to discuss something. Space should be allocated on need, but this does bring up another point.

    Cubicles. Cubicles are no ones friend. I’ve seem offices that have few if any cubicles and I’ve seen offices that have tiny, pre-alocated workspaces, but large play spaces. Depending upon your role in the organization you may need one type of space or another. A flexible work environment where you can create/destroy those spaces is vital to fostering creativity. (Fostering creativity does not mean that the person is going to be creative, just that you trying to remove obstacles to them being creative.)

    The Four/Five Year Technology Refresh. Computers become more powerful all of the time. The people who do computer intensive tasks (graphic artists, programmers, video editting, etc.) are more productive when you give them a better machine. Other people – mainly managers – (disclaimer, I am one of those managers) don’t need a technology refresh as often. Depending upon what they are doing their desktop/laptop can be replaced every four/five years or even longer. If something is going to increase productivity by 5% and that person maked $50,000 a year, that means for a $1500 investment you are getting a $2500 return. Makes good sense to me to upgrade that persons technology.

    $25 Christmas Party. If you want to thank me for working for you for another year, don’t make me pay for the privilege.

    One Hour meetings. 22 minute meetings. https://scottberkun.com/2010/the-22-minute-meeting/

    Everybody is the same. Everybody is not the same. Every role is different. My current role is much more operationally focused: keep the light running. And yet my ANNUAL performance review seems to think that I have time to do projects and the like. Keeping the lights running doesn’t count as a project or even a deliverable, so my boss and I fudge my review so that it states things like “Succesfully assist in implmenting the new version of Project XXX” Standardized templates, while helpful in reducing effort, do not make it easier to actually do the performance review and that makes them almost useless. Customize the review for the person and if they discover something in the annual/semi-annual review that you did not tell them when it happened you didn’t do your job.

  10. Suzannah Woods

    Self evaluation sheets. The problem is that nobody ever knows what to put on them. It’s difficult to strike the balance between being too generous with yourself or being too harsh, and as they are often confidential, you have no idea whether your evaluation was realistic. I have yet to see any evidence of these being anything other than time-wasters.

  11. Srinivas Yelijala

    Let’s NOT forget Organizational Bureaucracy Please!

    1. Srinivas Yelijala

      I thought I’ll take a little more time to speak on this one. Bureaucracy is something that has been plaguing many organizations and even the most simplest of the tasks becomes complex. I have seen organizations sitting on critical decisions, going through various advisory boards, seeking unnecessary approvals, documentation, trackers, and what not. I am sure many of us would agree with what I say!

  12. Bez Bezson

    It’s not the ‘cc’ on emails that’s the problem, it’s people now knowing how to use it right.
    Use ‘To’ for people that the email is aimed at and anyone who needs to act upon it.
    Use ‘cc’ for people who don’t need to do anything and who it’s not aimed at, but who should be made aware of what’s happening.

  13. Smaranda

    HR surveys. I don’t know if that qualifies as a practice per se, but those emails that start with Dear Employee… and then take you through 15 pages of questions that end up in some skewed KPIs analyzed somewhere about 100 levels higher up the organizational scale. No matter how well they are done…. :))

    I agree 100% with dress codes. Ban them altogether. I should be able to wear a mohawk to work if I wanted to. To ANY work that is not client facing. The haircut is outside my head not inside it, you shallow people! :))

  14. Smaranda

    Mission statements on the other hand: those should be in. The problem is not that companies have them. The problem is they don’t mean them or use them. A lot of times because they didn’t come from a real place when they were made.

  15. Warren

    The inability to open a godda#n window and let some fresh air in!

  16. Sean

    Conservative business appearance.

    Years ago, I accepted a job to relocate from Pennsylvania to work at the home office of Meineke in Charlotte NC and was told, “You’ll have to take out the earring and you must wear shirts with collars.” They also told me flat-out that from time to time I needed to work late “to set an example” for my junior colleague, but that’s beside the point. Now, 11 years later, and living back in Pennsylvania in working in a corporate-esque environment, not only do I wear a hoop earring again and occasionally shirts without collars, but in also frequently wear shirts that expose my sleeve-length tattoo on my forearm. Nobody has said a thing to me…not even my ultra-old-school manager. Maybe the tide is turning after all.


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