Feds may not be ready to ditch the clock

Time clock image

The results-oriented work environment concept aspires to make punching the clock a thing of the past, but can it work in federal agencies?

There is no denying the allure of the results-only work environment, or ROWE: do work whenever you want, wherever you are – all good as long as you get all your work done on time. With ROWE, the lack of face time and minding the clock has become reality in a new era of performance management. But is the government ready to change its traditional practices? Some seem to think so, but early efforts may not support their confidence.

In March 2010, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry announced a new pilot program with 400 employees to try out ROWE. The workforce management approach allows workers to do their job without any schedules in mind or without being limited to the traditional office space.

“Success [of the pilot] will send a powerful message, because if flexibility can succeed in the federal government, with the unrivaled importance, complexity and variety of our missions, it can succeed anywhere, Berry said March 31, 2010 at the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility.

Two years later, it was clear that ROWE had faltered. Despite Berry’s hopes that ROWE would usher in fresh thinking around the government work culture and management practices, the pilot program was canceled after achieving mixed results. OPM officials, however, did not see it as time wasted. The pilot had been a test to find ways to take concepts and bring them to scale quicker, Justin Johnson, chief deputy of staff at OPM, said at a September event in Washington, D.C.

The pilot identified some challenges with first-line managers, said Johnson, who also coordinated OPM’s ROWE pilot. For example, managers in the ROWE pilot were reporting increased productivity, but the numbers told a different story, he said.

Another problem: These managers often get inadequate training for leadership roles they didn’t really want to begin with, Johnson said.

Aside from these difficulties, which would be troublesome enough, the program suffered further from unclear objectives and a lack of metrics to hold employees accountable, said Jody Thompson, creator of ROWE and co-founder of CultureRx.

“Other organizations might see these areas as opportunities – not showstoppers,” she said. “After all, one of ROWE’s many goals is to expose the truth, which can sometimes be ugly. Leaders who can accept reality for what it is will guide their organization through the challenges to successfully come out the other side. Leadership in a ROWE, especially in the public sector, must be strong.”

Challenges aside, the pilot produced some desirable results. Data from pre- and post-surveys conducted as part of the ROWE training process indicated a significant spike in employee satisfaction during the early transition period, Thompson said.

“There was also a noteworthy cultural change that showed both employees and managers exhibiting behaviors focused on specific results they needed to achieve rather than hours worked,” she said. “As a result of the ROWE training process, managers and employees began working together to create the necessary standards and processes to most effectively achieve and measure results.”

The post survey also showed that employees perceived leadership as generally more proactive versus reactive, priorities as clearer as opposed to lacking direction, and reinforcement as more consistent, she explained.

“All good things, right?  Things upon which we’d hope our government would build.  After all, what is any administration -- on either side of the fence -- always touting? Results.”

ROWE, which saw its birth in the retail sector, is easier to implement in nongovernment organizations because results are easier to measure, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

“In the government, sometimes the results of good policy making may not be evident for several months or years – for example, if you’re trying to reduce poverty, homelessness or global warming or increase the quality of education,” he said. “It’s not insurmountable -- it’s really the front-line supervisors’ job to have a handle on reasonable expectations in terms of what individuals are supposed to produce.”

Although ROWE was not the transformational force some had expected, Thompson said the federal government is ready to adopt the drastically different model as “the move to a ROWE is inevitable for all organizations.”

Citing the government’s public-sector status as a reason to avoid ROWE, or insisting employees have to be present in an office to do their work serve to disguise the real reason for the hesitation, Thompson said. The real reason: “We’re too scared to focus on results because we don’t know how,’” she said.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that some clients feel challenged when their ROWE transition begins. Overall, some of the hurdles to implementing ROWE in government lie in lack of strong leadership, clear metrics and strong communication.

“OPM frankly didn’t have the guts we know are needed to continue the evolution toward an authentic results-only work environment,” Thompson said.

ROWE success stories from state and local government show the model can indeed work in the public sector. The State of Maryland, for example, has adopted ROWE, as did Hennepin County Human Services & Public Health Department in Minnesota and the St. Croix County in Wisconsin.

So why is it more challenging on the federal level? In the case of OPM, Thompson attributed it to the agency being in the spotlight and feeling the heat in a way most organizations do not.

In the end, OPM had to decide whether to continue through the discomfort, come out the other side, and experience positive consequences -- or call it quits because it was just too hard, she said. 

“This is a decision that other public-sector entities may need to make -- in the face of political winds that are always changing,” Thompson said. “It’s our hope, for this country, that the right decision will be made in the future.”

Although ROWE was abandoned at OPM, an offshoot of a results-focused idea was resurrected with a pilot dubbed GEAR -- Goals, Engagement, Accountability and Results.

The program has so far gained traction among several agencies -- and the list is growing with initiatives underway at OPM and the departments of Energy, Labor, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. A Veterans Affairs Department's National Cemetery Administration official said Oct. 18 the agency was planning on adopting GEAR, according to Federal News Radio. Coast Guard officials too have expressed intent to launch a GEAR pilot in 2013.

GEAR calls on agencies to take five steps:

  • Articulate a high performance culture.
  • Align employee performance management with organizational performance management.
  • Implement accountability at all levels.
  • Create a culture of engagement.
  • Improve the assessment, selection, development and training of supervisors.

But whether it is ROWE or GEAR or any other iteration, Palguta stressed that performance management in the public sector is more art than science. And in a way, he said, performance management requires the same type of obligation as someone who commits to lifelong diet and exercise to stay healthy.

“There is not a single perfect performance management system,” Palguta said. “We have to have standards and ways to track employee contributions. But beyond the overarching principles that you want to have in performance management, it’s figuring out what works for an organization.”


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