According to a recent study by the UN Global Compact, 49 percent of CEOs cite the complexity of implementation across functions as the most significant barrier to an integrated, company-wide approach to sustainability. The following six work systems characteristics can help address that problem.

Work Is Managed Strategically

The traditional functions of management -- planning, leading, organizing and controlling -- generally describe how managers add value and get work done through others. But sustainable management organizations move too fast to rely on traditional work systems. For instance, at Alegent Health, a nurse may be delivering routine patient care one day and then working to design a sustainability strategy the next.

When work is defined in this way, the traditional functions of management are carried out in a strategic manner. Managers link the activities they sanction to the organization’s strategic intent. It is a manager’s job in a sustainable management organization to think about the most important areas for innovation and ensure that processes are in place to address them.

Work Is Based on Activities, Not Jobs

Traditional, job-based approaches to work make sense when control and economic performance are the primary objective. However, sustainable management organizations, including Cisco, HP and Alegent Health, are turning to more flexible ways of working where most individuals do not have fixed jobs or typical reporting relationships. Instead, they ask, “What needs to get done?” Individuals are continually moved from project to project, with a different project lead for each assignment.

As a result, these organizations do not fear change; they embrace it.

Work Is Performed by Multiple Stakeholder Teams and Can Be Virtual

Let’s face it: we have passed the point in time when organizations can be considered freestanding. No single organization is completely in charge of its own destiny. An organization’s performance and effectiveness must be seen in terms of the interactions and relationships among a range of stakeholders—often in tacit coordination.

In our increasingly fast-paced business environment, we have the capability to connect with employees and others via technology. For instance, using their own WebEx and Telepresence technology, Cisco’s councils, boards and work teams are prime examples of this: they are collaborating and innovating in an increasingly virtual system of meetings that supports agility, a smaller carbon footprint, a better work-life balance and lower costs.

Work Is Guided by Shared Goals

When work is designed properly, people can see their work in its context -- not just as one part or piece of what is done -- and can better understand how their work has an impact on customers, vendors and the larger system. A key method of achieving this kind of work is to set goals collaboratively and at a challenging but achievable level.

Goals that are set by multi-stakeholder groups are more likely to encompass a sustainable performance focus. In the Alegent Health case, for example, involving representatives from the business, the community and the natural environment has led to a comprehensive and integrated set of goals.

Work Is Temporary and Iterative

To be agile, sustainable organizations need temporary and iterative work systems. This holds true for corporations all over the world, but we can draw on an example from an unlikely place -- Hollywood and the movie industry. 

The movie industry -- in Hollywood, Bollywood and elsewhere -- moves around the globe for location filming, hiring a variety of support work—catering, equipment, transportation, technical advice or government assistance—on a project basis. When the movie or project is over, the resources are freed up to reconfigure. The work in a sustainable management organization is similar: issues are identified, the work is designed, the stakeholders are gathered, decisions are made, actions organized and the resources are freed.

And because sustainable management organizations eschew the idea of a sustainable competitive advantage, they drive revenue as best they can under a particular strategic intent until change is necessary, but expected. Thus, any work system is temporary; it will change when it is not contributing to the goals of economic performance, positive social outcomes or ecological health.

Work Is Supported by the Physical Space and Technology

One of the key features of sustainable work systems is the creation of a space that complements the way the work is done. Capital One’s Future of Work project shows how technology and the physical setting can be extended into the workplace.

Beginning with the goals of using space more efficiently, increasing employee satisfaction and work-life balance, and increasing personal productivity, Capital One created a variety of different “neighborhoods.” For example, vice presidents and executives work in what are known as the “executive digs,” while other neighborhoods include “quiet zones” with comfortable furniture (where phones and conversations are not allowed).

The Capital One design saves real estate costs, lowers the company's carbon footprint (because their people are traveling less), improves the quality of work life and increases customer contact (maximum surface area), all of which result in higher sustainable effectiveness.


Work systems are an important contributor to an organization’s structure that supports the triple bottom line. Approaching work in this way, companies are achieving agility and sustainable effectiveness. So how does your company stack up? If you’re not looking at work -- and management -- in a new, innovative way, you might be left behind. After all, sustainability is the future of business.


Edward E. Lawler III, distinguished professor of busi­ness at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and Christopher G. Worley, senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organi­zations, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, are co-authors of Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable Effectiveness (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., March 2011).

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable Effectiveness by Edward E. Lawler, III, Christopher G. Worley with David Creelman. Copyright (c) 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.