Human Resources

It seems like a recipe for anarchy: At TechTarget, a Needham, Mass., interactive media company, all 210 employees are free to come and go as they please. There are no set policies mandating working hours or detailing sick, personal, or vacation days. More productive between midnight and 4 a.m.? No problem. Ditto if you need a day off to take your kid to camp. "I detest bureaucracy and silly policies," says founder and CEO Greg Strakosch. "You're either sick one day or eight, but a set number of sick days strikes me as arbitrary and dumb."

Strakosch, 40, may sound like a throwback to the feverish, try-anything days of the new economy. But TechTarget's financial results tell a different story. The four-year-old company's "open-leave" policy, Strakosch says, is a big reason why revenue is expected to hit $35 million this year, up nearly 30% from 2002. "It's a competitive weapon," he says.

That doesn't surprise Shoshana Zuboff, professor of business administration at Harvard. In the age of intellectual, intangible assets, she says, it's absurd to treat workers with an industrial-age mindset. "We should be beyond trusting employees to do good work but not trusting them to be honest and upright about managing their time," Zuboff says.

Open-leave sounds great in theory. But how do you make it work? The first, and perhaps most difficult, step is to reorient your approach to managing. While many business owners claim to care more about performance than attendance, few have made as complete a leap as Strakosch. TechTarget, he says, is "an entirely results-oriented business." Managers set quarterly goals and timetables, and employees are granted plenty of independence to achieve them. But no one would describe TechTarget as laid-back. Strakosch and his managers set the bar high and have little tolerance for failure. Employees frequently put in at least 50 hours a week. "This isn't a country club," Strakosch says.

"I detest bureaucracy and silly policies. A set number of sick days strikes me as arbitrary and dumb."

In exchange for the flexibility, employees are expected to remain in close contact with their managers -- you can't phone in Monday morning and say you're taking the week off. And whatever hours they work, employees must remain accessible via e-mail, cell phones, instant-messaging, and laptops -- all of which make open-leave possible in the first place.

Mary Beth Cadwell -- TechTarget's art director and a hard-core triathlete -- wouldn't trade the arrangement for anything. "I couldn't work somewhere where I wasn't allowed to take an afternoon off for a bike ride," she says. Other employees have used their time to take a class or travel to Australia with a theater troupe. TechTarget also employs 25 mothers with kids under the age of 10. Site editor Joyce Chutchian has two children and says open-leave "eliminates the guilt and stress from the equation. I never worry about being a good mother and a good employee."

Strakosch acknowledges the policy isn't for everyone. Despite a painstaking hiring process designed to weed out all but the most autonomous, Strakosch dismissed 7% of his work force last year. "We don't carry people who underachieve," he says. Others have been fired for abusing the policy. Nor will open-leave work for all companies. Success, according to University of Southern California business professor Edward Lawler, usually depends on "a charismatic founder or founders, but once they move on, it often breaks down." That's okay. Strakosch isn't going anywhere. Where else would he be allowed to coach his three kids' sports teams -- in the middle of the workday?

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