As I See It: Get Ready to ROWE
September 15, 2008 Victor Rozek
Each generation holds beliefs about work that are forged by time and place. Some are accepted without question, others are repeated with sufficient frequency that they become hard-coded in the collective consciousness. For example, people who lived through the Great Depression believed that nothing could be more important than having a job.
As the Depression gave way to the post war economic ramp-up, people were able to secure a single job that spanned an entire career. But when the pace of prosperity quickened, people came to believe that job-hopping was the way to accelerate their earning potential. By the time manufacturing was fully supplanted by technology and the dot-com boom was in full swing, IT professionals believed high-paying, benefit-laden jobs would always be abundant.
Now, in the embrace of recession, with wages stagnating and jobs fleeing our shores, resignation and mistrust reign. The accompanying belief is that it’s every man for himself and employers will press their advantage whenever they can.
While beliefs about work change with time and circumstance, some precepts become rigid and transcend generations. One of our more persistent tenets is the way we view the nature of work. Human labor has long been connected to religious mythology. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden established work as divine retribution for the offense of disobedience, and punishment (as another of our enduring beliefs tells us) should not be easy.
The belief that work must be hard is such a given that those who actually enjoy working are almost apologetic about their good fortune, quick to explain that what they are doing isn’t really work.
This attachment to punitive toil created equal measures of affluence and unhappiness. Even Boomers, those self-described rebels, made the painful transition from hippie to yuppie. The “consciousness revolution” ended up being largely a narcissistic and idle pursuit as Boomers abandoned youthful idealism for mid-life comfort. Long-haired nonconformists got a trim and ended up working for “The Man,” stuck in offices they despised, wearing clothes they once distrusted as symbolic of an abusive power structure. Peace and Love gave way to convention and toil.
But the notion of work-as-an-unpleasant-alternative-to-starvation may be changing. A new camel is poking its nose under the work tent and its name is ROWE. The concept is simple to grok, but tricky to implement. It stands for Results Only Work Environment, and its revolutionary contribution is freeing workers from the constraints of the workplace. As BusinessWeek put it: ROWE “seeks to demolish [the] decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal. . . is to judge performance on output instead of hours.”
The idea was formalized by two HR people–a Boomer and a Gen Xer by the way–who met while working at Best Buy. Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson saw the usual workplace problems: stress, burnout, high turnover, and an inability to balance work and family obligations. When two department heads approached them at wit’s end, they suggested ROWE. Essentially, they told the managers not to worry about when and where people worked, as long as they got their jobs done. Results were everything: “No results, no job,” said Ressler and Thompson. But give employees the autonomy to do their jobs in a way that worked for them.
It turned out that disconnecting work from place and structure had a natural constituency. Those who felt they needed to put in long hours in order to be seen by management as being committed, were liberated. Conversely, those who worked a standard 40-hour week but were judged to be unqualified for promotion because they didn’t spend every waking minute in the office, were vindicated.
Imagine, no work schedules, no mandatory meetings, no more pretending that you’re working when there is nothing left to do. Imagine nobody tracking what time you come to work, how long a lunch you take, or how many hours you put in each day. The benefits based on Ressler and Thompson’s experience include less stress and less guilt. “Work,” they admonish, “is not a place you go, it’s something you do.”
Companies benefit because people at all levels stop wasting the company’s time and money. The pretense and paper-shuffling stop because everyone is motivated to be efficient, knowing that the time they save will be their own. Teamwork, morale, and engagement soar because there’s no judgment about how people spend their time.
To skeptics, it sounded too much like anarchy, but Best Buy reported that productivity soared by a whopping 35 percent in the departments that embraced ROWE. The experiment became so successful that Ressler and Thompson created a spin-off company called CultureRx to help other corporations embrace the nomadic life.
Granted, as BusinessWeek notes, “Best Buy did not invent the post-geographic office.” High Tech companies have long make use of network and wireless technology to give their employees unprecedented freedom. “At IBM, 40 percent of the workforce has no official office; at AT&T, a third of managers are untethered. Sun Microsystems calculates that it’s saved $400 million over six years in real estate costs by allowing nearly half of all employees to work anywhere they want. And this trend seems to have legs. A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that 85 percent of executives expect a big rise in the number of unleashed workers over the next five years.”
One way to look at this is that companies not only don’t want to contribute to their employees’ healthcare and retirement, but they don’t even want them in the building. But that would be cynical and although we have much reason for cynicism, the ROWE experiment may signal something much more enduring.
At the very least, it is an indication that our beliefs about jobs and the nature of work are again changing. The rules that were established when work was primarily physical and required full-time presence are finally outdated. The human brain is portable and technology at long last mirrors the mind. And, as is often the case, the last thing to change are the beliefs that hold us tethered to the past.
ROWE has the potential to redefine management while providing new motivation for employees to expand their proficiency and resourcefulness. Managers who are authoritarian and controlling will not thrive in a ROWE environment. Authority and responsibility will have to be pushed to the lowest levels. Trust will become the currency of management/employee relations; personal accountability will become the glue that binds them in the pursuit of common goals. Employees will find better and smarter ways of doing things because they will be rewarded with a recompense that is finite and cannot be duplicated: the precious hours of their lives. Employees will be free to live the lives they want, provided they produce the results management expects.
Implementing ROWE would doubtless present some challenges. Deliverables would have to be clearly defined and timelines established. It would be difficult to institute objective work standards for subjective tasks. How long should it take a programmer to code or debug an application? That, of course, depends on the programmer and the application. But such considerations could be adjusted over time.
In the end, the true benefit of an approach like ROWE is that it treats employees as autonomous adults instead of reluctant children. That, in itself, signals a quantum belief shift.