Friday, April 24, 2009

My Go at ROWE

I've danced around ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) in the past (like my posts productive unproductivity and meetings that suck) because I really like the concept. ROWE is a radical, commonsense rethinking of how we work and live. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results - not where you are sitting or how busy you look. ROWE companies claim to enjoy staggering increases in engagement and productivity. It's also a great way to attract new employees (especially the coveted Gen Y workers) and retain your top folks.

The approach is most notably credited with some significant changes at Best Buy HQ (where I believe ROWE was born) - this included average productivity increases of 35% and, in at least one department, improvement in employee retention by 27% with a 50% increase in cost reductions over two years. Ashley Acker, is excellent at explaining why it doesn't matter where/if employees are at work and how to get there.

You can find other companies giving something like this a go. Netflix salaried employee's have no specific vacation allotment, Motley Fool employees can take as many vacation or sick days as they want, Semco has a 7-day comp policy of sorts, and Ernst & Young has completely flexible holidays.

Awhile back the New York Times discussed how IBM is pulling this off;

"IBM doesn't mandate how many hours you work in a day or work week. And second, they don't mandate which days of the week you decide to work. Third, they don't mandate where you get the work done - at home, Starbucks, or in one of the "e-mobility centers" around the world.

Instead, for the past few years, employees at all levels have made informal arrangements with their direct supervisors, guided mainly by their ability to get their work done on time. Many people post their vacation plans on electronic calendars that colleagues can view online, and they leave word about how they can be reached in a pinch."

As awesome as all this sounds, the comments from employees participating in these programs aren't all glowing. Crazy, right? These plans sound so sweet it's surprising you don't hear people praising them left and right. Are they not all they are cracked up to be? In fact, it begs the BIG question: If it works so well, why isn't everyone doing it?

Clearly for many environments it doesn't make sense (retail, manufacturing, etc...). But for the others, I think it's too big a step, even if it might sound like a good idea. I've seen more studies than you can count showing napping at work is a great idea and awakens productivity, but generally we aren't ready to make the pro-napping step. We don't have enough of a handle of our business (and job) goals to feel ok about employees going on a Tuesday morning hike.

ROWE doesn't quite work, and we don't have confidence it can work for us, because we aren't doing HR and business well enough. We don't have good job descriptions, we don't always understand what outcome we want, we don't measure/or know how to measure success, there are no consequences (or follow up), and we don't communicate. You need to have excellent management and engaged employees for it to work.

The idea of ROWE isn't going away. It's a hugely powerful idea, with some workable real applications. It can work if we all (read 'employees, managers, executives') get way better at what we are supposed to be doing - knowing what success is, being accountable for it, being passionate about it, and communicating.

What do you think? Do you want this at your company? Why would it work? Are you doing something like it and it's working? Failing?


  1. Great post Matt. I think the success of ROWE or any business model comes down to the company's culture. Organizations that value innovation, creativity, and (to a lesser extent) loyalty will embrace it.

    I work in retail which is primarily concerned with cost savings. This doesn't mean that ROWE wouldn't work, just that it wouldn't be able to be applied to the majority of its workforce. Perhaps Best Buy, Zappos, and others will lead the way and create a viable model for my industry.

  2. Matt,
    Thank you for a thoughtful post. I think you nailed it. The biggest obstacle to unleasing to power of ROWE is bringing HR practices out of the industrial age era, and into the modern era.

    Peter Drucker said knowledge workers need to learn to manage themselves... "making knowledge workers productive requires changes in attitude, not only on the part of the individual knowledge worker, but on the part of the whole organization."

  3. Matt,
    I think one of the answers to your BIG question is that companies don't go ROWE more often because it means they actually have to spend time getting serious about defining results! If you are results-only, everyone (employees, management, executives) must be crystal clear on what those results are! Although companies should already have the results part nailed down (why are you in business if you don't?), this first step can be scary, difficult, and overwhelming.

    Glad you're not giving up on ROWE yet! And thanks for asking some of these important questions-we need more dialogue about ROWE and how it works.

  4. Thanks CCC. It would be cool to see some successful variations applied to retail. I know, I'm explaining covering all here, but why not some system where people sign up whenever they want to fill shifts?

    @Bob Corlett - It's crazy HR policy hasn't evolved more - and that we don't focus more on understanding and acting on what is directly impacting business.

    Hi Ashley - thanks for the note. I'm certainly not giving up on ROWE - I think any aspect companies adopt is good. As you said (in addition to the engagement and sweetness factor), ROWE mandates everyone is much more clear on defining results! This is what business/units need to be doing (should already know). Because they do not / have not understood what makes them successful is the main reason (answer to the BIG question) why I think more companies don't embrace it - they just don't fully know what results they are shooting for. I'm on your side Ashley - I heart ROWE ... I wonder if there is a baby step program for a broader range of companies (that are traditional/reluctant/etc...) to try out ROWE and see the benefits? (Like a design outcome and work from home day).....

    Thanks all - I love seeing your comments.