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ROWE Re-Visited

Rowe Last May, I wrote a few posts on the Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) that Best Buy has been using throughout its organization--Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Stop Watching the Clock? and A Results Oriented Work Environment is NOT the Same as Flexible Scheduling. Now I see that Tim Ferris is publishing a series of interviews with the co-developers of the concept, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, who have written a new book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It (love the title!)

At the heart of ROWE is the idea that instead of focusing on how much time people spend working, we should be focusing on what they're accomplishing. In a ROWE environment, expectations about what needs to be done (and by when) are made clear to people who are then free to accomplish those goals however and where ever they see fit. So if the goal is to bring in three new customers by the end of the month and that can happen with a few hours of work at the local cafe, then you've done your thing. 

The numbers for this approach speak for themselves. Apparently since  since implementing ROWE, Best Buy has experienced a 41% increase in productivity and reduced turnover by 90%! They report other benefits as well:

On the personal side, ROWE has transformed people’s lives. We’ve heard stories about ROWE saving marriages, allowing people to be better parents (and opened the door for some to actually be parents), get in shape and give back to their community.

We’d like to see people talk about work in way that doesn’t pit employee versus management. If you focus on results instead of time, both sides win.

ROWE is really just common sense. Consider these absurdities, which Ressler and Thompson pose as conversation starters to begin discussing moving to ROWE:

Isn’t it funny that we rush to work everyday and then spend the first hour at our desk reading the paper and drinking coffee?

Isn’t it funny that if you’re done with your work for the day at four, you can’t just leave? Why do you have to stay that extra hour and pretend to be busy?

Why do we assume that time = productivity instead of talking about the kind of results the person is actually getting?

Why do we talk about people being “out of the office” when everyone is reachable by cell phone or e-mail?

I've thought a lot lately about the need for more organizations to move to a ROWE environment. Every day my husband leaves the house and drives 30 minutes to an office where he works on a computer and talks on the phone--two things that I do from my own home office without the commute. We're spending $200+ per month on gas and adding to the incredible pollution load in our area so that he can go to another location to do something he could easily do from home. Not to mention the loss of time for the commute and the time he spends talking to co-workers and going to useless meetings. And the ridiculous "make work" activities that go on, like having to do a certain number of phone calls per week, regardless of what those calls accomplish.

This isn't just his workplace, though--this is where and how a LOT of people work. What I find really interesting is that we finally have technology that makes it possible for us to do most work anytime, anywhere, yet we continue to stick with our same old paradigms of working in a particular location during certain hours. We also stick by our belief that time is the best measure of what we do, rather than results.

Maybe part of the issue is that organizations don't see the costs of sticking to the old ways. Business Week has an interesting article about The Waning Days of the Road Warrior. Apparently with the rising costs of air travel, organizations are slashing their travel budgets and using technology like video-conferencing and online collaboration instead. They've realized it makes no sense for someone to fly from Newark, NJ to Silicon Valley for an hour-long meeting, so they're ditching the trips. That's great--some change.

For me the next step would be for organizations to realize that it makes little sense for workers to commute every day to a building the organization must pay for to work at activities they could as easily do from home. If work is still getting done without cross-country "face time," it seems like it's not a every short leap to doing the same thing locally. They'd get increases in productivity and decreases in cost--two of the things most organizations want to see. Seems like a no-brainer, even if it is a little scary.

Which is probably the real reason we don't have more ROWE workplaces. It feels safer to measure effectiveness based on how busy people look. They may have just mastered the art of looking busy, but we seem to be wired to believe that harried people are more effective than people who got things done in a few hours  with minimal drama. It's easier to say "be in this location for this period of time where we can WATCH you." Much more difficult to say, "Hey--get these things done and we'll trust that you're an adult and can take care of it."

Sometimes it would be better if we took the hard way.


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Great stuff. The problem I guess is two-fold:

1) a ROWE workplace is a mortal threat to middle managers. They'll fight it tooth and nail since it kicks out the legs supporting their rationale for existing.

2) I think we'll find that there isn't enough for everyone to do. Most real work is done by machines or by 3rd world labor offshore or in the fields here. Going to meetings and walking around looking harried is what most whitecollar workers and managers describe as "work" now. So we'll have to find a face-saving way to say people are "working"...perhaps we can say they're studying a situation (that would be better than sitting in meetings, so would be a real improvement).

I don't know if I'd say that most "real" work is done by machines, etc., although I would agree that ROWE would certainly shake things up in terms of how we're defining productivity. In a few hours, I could conceivably come up with an idea that saves my company millions. Does this mean that I need to work another 38 hours to "earn my keep"? Or is that result alone worth my salary? I'd argue that time isn't the best measure for evaluating knowledge work, but i's so ingrained for most of us it will be a real challenge to change how we think.

I don't know a whole lot about ROWE, and I was glad to read a bit about it! I have a concern opposite to Logic001's comment: what protects employees from assigned outcomes that can't be achieved with only 40 hours per week? Regarding "out of office," where's the line between "always reachable" and "always working?"

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