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.