ROWE: Can We Afford To Manage By Results Only?

While attending a conference earlier this year,  I had the opportunity to hear from the Founders of CultureRX – Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson – who are also the authors of “Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It” – described as a field guide for how to operate in the new world or work. During their talk, Cali and Jody shared more about why they believe that it’s not Managers that suck in today’s workplace, it’s the way that we manage people that sucks.

Ressler and Thompson came to this conclusion several years ago while working at the corporate offices of Best Buy and dealing with some of the challenges associated with Best Buy’s “flexible work environment”. Cali (a frustrated department Manager) was constantly fielding questions from her team about what they could and could not do within the confines of the flexible work schedule policy – and Jody (a Change Implementation Manager) was assigned to work with her to resolve these issues.

To overcome many of the challenges created by a system where the clock was the foundation for how work is judged (“Sally worked 60 hours last week” or “Jim worked all weekend.”), Ressler and Thompson ultimately concluded that the definition of work needs to be changed. Work is no longer a place you go, it’s something you do – and defining work as a specific place and a specific time was an industrial age idea that was no longer the reality in the workplace.

With the advent of “knowledge work”, the world of work has evolved to the point that work is no longer defined as “Time + physical presence = results”. Now, the focus should be on the results of work – not on how the work gets done. Hence the concept of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) was born, where each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done – and Managers don’t manage people or time and place, they manage the work.

With the ROWE concept, the Managers don’t dictate the “How” of work – they focus on the “What” of work. Everyone is measured on results – not just the knowledge worker. Work is objective, not subjective. Managing people, in the sense that “we must all be present in the office in order to communicate and collaborate” is outdated. In a ROWE environment, it’s about managing work – “the deadline for the deliverable is Friday, May 10th at 2pm”. As a result, the Manager is able to go from Hall Monitor to Coach and Mentor.

For many Managers and Human Resources professionals, the concept of ROWE may conjure up thoughts of anarchy and employees running amok, but Ressler and Thompson are quick to point out that in order to make ROWE work, there must be consequences if there are no results. ROWE only works if there is both 100% accountability along with 100% autonomy. In short, “no results, no job.”

I must admit that I like the concept of ROWE and I do believe that a majority of employees, if given the opportunity, will do what it takes to get their work done within established guidelines. But there’s almost always that same old 20% that ruins it for everybody. They’re the ones who don’t play well with others and do just enough to get by. They’ll hit their results, but someone in the 80% typically has to step up and take up their slack.

I’m also not sure that the ROWE concept works in all types of environments (although Ressler and Thompson say that in their consulting experience, it does). As someone who’s worked with companies in a variety of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing and food service companies, I see some difficulty in implementing an “every person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want as long as the work gets done” philosophy.

So what do you think? Do you have experience with ROWE in your workplace? Does it work, or is this something that sounds good in theory, but not always in practice?

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Unbridled Talent LLC is a consulting and advisory firm providing services to clients in the areas of people strategies, leadership development and career growth. Jennifer McClure offers keynotes, workshops and training that inspire and teach business leaders to be more effective in their careers and as leaders of their organization’s most valuable resource – people. Contact Us to schedule an event or to discuss our strategic consulting and advisory services.