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Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Stop Watching the Clock?

My husband, like many Americans, is unhappy with his job. It is a job that combines impossibly high expectations with little personal control. There is a strong emphasis on "face-time" and productivity is measured by your slavish adherence to poorly thought-out metrics that emphasize process over outcomes. So it was interesting to find, as often happens to me when a problem is on my mind, this post from Ryan Healey at Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist. It's about Best Buy and its current experiment with ROWE--or Results-Oriented Work Environment.

In a nutshell, Best Buy has decided that measuring employees based on the amount of time they spend at work is a useless endeavor. So they have banished all schedules, mandatory meetings, and even the requirement that they show up to the office. Employees know what work needs to be done and their managers assume that because these employees are competent and responsible, they will get it done. If it's work that can be done over a cell phone or on a laptop in your bedroom, so be it. Feel free to do it that way.  You're a grown-up and we trust you to do the work. If you can't handle that, then we'll deal with it at that point. Otherwise, we're all happy.

According to an article in Business Week, since Best Buy adopted this approach, the results have been pretty amazing:

Since the program's implementation, average voluntary turnover has fallen drastically, CultureRx says. Meanwhile, Best Buy notes that productivity is up an average 35% in departments that have switched to ROWE. Employee engagement, which measures employee satisfaction and is often a barometer for retention, is way up too, according to the Gallup Organization, which audits corporate cultures.

ROWE may also help the company pay for the customer centricity campaign. The endeavor is hugely expensive because it involves tailoring stores to local markets and training employees to turn customer feedback into new business ideas. By letting people work off-campus, Best Buy figures it can reduce the need for corporate office space, perhaps rent out the empty cubicles to other companies, and plow the millions of dollars in savings into its services initiative.

So let's see, higher employee morale, reduced turnover, greater productivity, a re-allocation of resources from offices that serve little function to services that actually help customers. . . does this sound like something for nonprofits to consider?

This story really opens up several lines of inquiry for me:

  • What would ROWE look like in different nonprofit environments? Is it just an advanced version of flexible scheduling or does it become something more? Is it possible for nonprofits to untether their staff from their desks? This article in Money magazine says that managers have no say in employee scheduling and can only measure employees on the work they get done--could command and control organizations live with this? 
  • What are the practical/logistical implications of using ROWE in a nonprofit? There are a lot of things that would need to happen differently. There are huge implications for staff selection and assignment, management and supervision, employee evaluations and training, expectations, etc.
  • What would need to be done with technology to really make this happen?
  • What organizational culture changes would need to take place? In addition to all the practical considerations, what cultural changes would need to occur to support a move to ROWE?
  • What are the pros and cons? Does it make sense to go this route? What are the benefits for a nonprofit and do they outweigh any costs?
  • What are the barriers to implementation? The Business Week article, as well as the resources below, indicate that there was a lot of push-back on the concept from old-style managers who'd grown up in a workaholic culture. The experience has also revealed some ugly attitudes--most notably that some managers have a profound mistrust of and disrespect for their employees. It's also made visible an unspoken "rule" of many workplaces--that flexibilty should only apply to certain "types" of staff, i.e., the "professional" or exempt staff. Many managers felt that this couldn't work with hourly employees that they "needed" more guidance and structure to get their jobs done.

More on ROWE and Best Buy from:

  • Time Magazine--Good stuff on results and on the challenges Best Buy faced, particularly from "old style" managers.

And a related article from the NYT on "When Work Time Isn't Face Time."

This is something that I think bears further investigation. I'm also curious about people's reactions to this idea. Do you think it could work? Are there organizations where you think it isn't possible?


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Timely post and thanks for the great resources. I am (in a sneaky way) trying to implement ROWE, at least for my IT department, in the nonprofit where it works. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this and how it might work.

Shannon, if you read both the Business Week and Time articles, you'll see that the Best Buy folks were "sneaky" about implementing ROWE themselves. It started as a number of under-the-radar experiments that eventually gathered steam. As they were able to demonstrate positive impact, it grew until it became so clear that that it was working well, it was eventually brought to the CEO for a more formal implementation.

Michele, your husband must work for Intel ;-)
I felt my skin crawl, and hot sweats, flashing back just thinking about the corporate hell and the mighty clock watching managers.
I say, manage the work...the people can manage themselves.
Good post!!!


Have just recently discovered your blog and am enjoying reading!

I work with a lot of nonprofits in the areas of performance management and pay. I don't have personal experience with ROWE, but I would expect that its success depends on having effective ways, other than face time, to manage and assess employee work performance (e.g., clear performance expectations and desired outcomes, solid goal-setting processes, etc.). The performance management thing is an area that many nonprofits struggle with (for a number of reasons, including lack of funding for resources and skill development in this area), and I think that this would be a prerequisite to successfully implementing an approach like ROWE. So ... while I think the possibilities are intriguing - as you point out - I also think that a certain amount of groundwork would have to come first!

Hi Ann--I absolutely agree with you that prior to implementing an ROWE approach, you have to have a good idea of how you'll measure results. Regardless of whether or not a nonprofit goes with ROWE, though, I think that they need to revisit this issue. Thinking that someone is doing a good job because you see them plugging away at their desk all day isn't a great way to run an organization no matter what. I also tend to have less patience anymore with nonprofit complaints that there's no funding available to do a better job with developing better measures for employee results. With so many resources readily available on the Internet for free, they could at least get much closer to where they need to be on their own. It's one of those areas where the investment of time is well worth it.

This is a really timely post for me, especially as our organization is thinking of implementing a work-from-home policy. We're looking at this issue mainly because we don't have the physical space to hire more staff, and want to see how the work could get done remotely to save on overhead costs. But for us as a nonprofit, it's not so much an issue of how will we measure the performance of folks who work from home, seeing as how our staff is already willing to work until 9 in the evening to get projects done if they need to, like you said in your notes, it's really about how to now try to institute this new work culture that is not dependent on having everyone at the office every day. Thanks for these resources!


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