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A Results Oriented Work Environment is NOT the Same as Flexible Scheduling

Last week I asked if your nonprofit was ready to stop watching the clock in a post discussing Best Buy's Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE). As a quick recap, Best Buy is now allowing a significant portion of its employees to work from home or other locations and to work whatever hours they need in order to achieve clearly-defined work objectives. Face time is no longer considered a requirement of most jobs and they are even looking to roll out the concept in their retail stores.

When I wrote the post, one of the questions I asked was if there's a difference between ROWE and flexible scheduling. I've come to the conclusion that there is a major difference, one that gets to the heart of some fundamental beliefs that many organizations have about work.

At many organizations, a flexible schedule is worked out on a case-by-case basis to accommodate life situations that workers may face during their tenure with the organization. It's commonly used to ease women back into work following maternity leave, to provide an employee with time to care for a sick family member or because the employee is dealing with his/her own health problems. Regardless, it's generally a solution that organizations will consider for employees who are currently "not serious" about their jobs because other life issues are intervening.

In the minds of management, people who need a flexible schedule are people who are not putting work first. This means that they are less likely to be considered for promotions, special projects, etc. In many cases, asking for a flexible schedule that allows you to work from home and/or to work "non-traditional" hours is a fast road to a career dead end.

ROWE is a completely different animal. Best Buy is starting from the premise that ALL workers would benefit from having the flexibility to get work done wherever and whenever it makes the most sense for them to do it. They are not assuming that people who want to work from Starbucks or from a den in their homes are trying to shirk work. They are assuming that these are people who are deadly serious about their own performance and are adult enough to know when they need an optimum environment for getting that work done.

While the content of flexible schedules is the same in both types of organizations--it consists of allowing workers to do work at times and locations that work for them--the CONTEXT for a flexible schedule is totally different.

In the first organization, flexible schedules are not the norm and they are based on a belief that the "best workers" are in the office, every day at specific hours. In the organization that embraces ROWE, however, flexible scheduling is part of the fabric and culture of the organization. It is based on a belief that the best workers will get their work done and that these workers NEED flexibility in order to operate at peak performance.

In the first organization, a flexible schedule is seen as a crutch for the "weaker" employees. In the ROWE organization, a flexible schedule is a tool that benefits all workers, particularly the strongest performers.

Why is making this distinction important? In part because I think that organizations interested in exploring the possibilities of ROWE must first be clear about some of their underlying beliefs about work and performance. Knowing if you see a flexible schedule as a crutch or a tool is an important first step.

Comments

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This is a great distinction, and an important one to make. I think another point that needs to be made is that ROWE is not imposing telecommuting or other aspects of flexibility on those employees who don't want them. Some people know they perform better in an office environment, and they have that option under ROWE. The key, I think, is recognizing that we all have individual ways of working and only we know what is best for ourselves.

If nonprofits can recognize that learning styles are individual and accommodate those, can't it do the same for working styles?

Shannon, you're making an important point here--that it's about letting people honor some of their natural work rhythms, recognizing that sometimes work MUST be done in a particular place at a particular time, but often that's not the case. It's also about realizing that people may work 10 hours one day and 6 the next, depending on the needs of a project and their own particular schedule.

I agree that if we can recognize that there are different learning styles, we should also recognize that there are different work styles. At the same time, I'm not sure that organizations have necessarily acknowledged this, based on the number of training sessions I've seen that don't play to different learning styles.

Hey Michele,
I'm coming to this discussion a little late (finally catching up on my feed now that our conference is over), but I wanted to throw in my $0.02.

I totally agree with you that ROWE is a wonderful concept that most organizations could really benefit from implementing. As much as I love my job, I still think its silly that I spend the first hour of work just trying to wake up and get caffeinated instead of getting more sleep, which is in my best interests as a person and employee. I'd almost certainly do much better coming in at 10 or 11 and working later than others, but office hours are office hours.

I guess my only question is to ask how an organization adjusts to this in terms of logistics and space as new employees come in, leave, etc. Say you have an office of 10 and most of those folks prefer to work at home. Therefore, you only rent a small amount of space for those who need/want an office environment. What if you have a bit of turnover and suddenly you have a bunch of employees who need a desk and space to work? How has Best Buy dealt with that type of stuff? Also, do they provide travel, rent, living expense subsidies at all? Thats my only other question--if I'm at home working (not that I would have to be, but as an example) I'm then using my electricity, heat/air conditioning, etc. instead of that provided by my employer. The positive trade-off of being flexible probably more than compensates for any of that stuff, but I would be concerned about some companies (or nonprofits) taking advantage of this idea to put more burden on employees in other ways. Just a thought...

Keep up the great work!

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