Jody Thompson, who helped invent the concept of a results-only work environment, explains why ROWE makes good sense in the federal government.
Call it the grown-up version of work. In a results-only work environment — ROWE, for short — workplace flexibility is not just a perk, it’s the point. The approach is ushering in a new era in which face time and 40-hour workweeks will be relics of the past.
ROWE was born in 2005 when Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, human resource professionals at Best Buy, developed a concept that focused purely on results in the workplace rather than the hours employees put in. The basic idea was that employees could do their work their own way — whenever and wherever they wanted.
Since its inception, ROWE has spread among businesses and even to the federal government. In 2010, the Office of Personnel Management launched a ROWE pilot program for 400 of its employees, and OPM Director John Berry mused about its potential: “If flexibility can succeed in the federal government — with the unrivaled importance, complexity and variety of our missions, as well as our red tape — quite frankly, it can succeed anywhere.”
Thompson and Ressler co-founded CultureRx, a consulting firm that helps organizations adopt ROWE. Thompson recently spoke with staff writer Camille Tuutti about why it’s time to free workers from an inflexible model that is rooted in the Industrial Age and the promise ROWE holds for federal workplaces.
FCW: Why is ROWE better than other flexible work arrangements?
Thompson: In the traditional workplace, if you want a flexible work schedule, you have to ask your boss. And that approach doesn’t really focus on results; you’re focused on getting an accommodation of some sort. Your boss can say yes or no, which is what makes flexibility hostile. As an employee, you don’t have any control over it, and you have to play a game to get what you want. In a results-only work environment, the bottom line that’s there for everybody is getting your job done.
A lot of people are just putting in time, and they really don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. If you can put in time every day, you can check that off your list. But in a results-only environment, you have to produce, and that’s a whole different game.
FCW: What concerns did managers voice when ROWE was implemented at Best Buy?
Thompson: The main concern we heard was, “How are we going to know what people are doing if they’re not in the office?” To which we replied, “How do you know now?” Typically, managers don’t know what employees are doing right now, but there is this complacency in that sort of comfort.
The second concern we heard was, “Some people just need more structure.” We default to the notion that some people need more managing. That’s a 1950s way of thinking. Managers are used to watching time and have a physical preference, but in the future of work, people are going to be measured by how the customer satisfaction rate is going up and things like that. We should be looking at things such as: Are we meeting deadlines? Are we under budget? Not if an employee left at 4 p.m. yesterday.
FCW: How can managers feel assured that the focus is on quality over quantity?
Thompson: Part of the work getting done in a ROWE is a focus not only on completion but on satisfactory completion. If an employee does not complete his or her work in an agreed-upon satisfactory manner, the manager in a ROWE focuses solely on performance, not when or where the work is being completed. A manager wouldn't say, “You didn't complete your work in our agreed-upon satisfactory manner, so now you need to stay in the office until 5 p.m. every day.”
A manager would focus on why the activity is important and, if it's not done in a satisfactory manner, how that affects the outcome.
FCW: How does ROWE handle underperformers?
Thompson: ROWE gives everyone the freedom to pass or fail; it’s completely opportunistic. When everyone is clear on how they get measured, no one can hide. When you go to college, you can study for 500 hours and put in a lot of effort. But if you take a test and don’t understand the information and fail, you can’t just go to the professor and say, “Look how many hours I put in! I still get an A, right?”
It’s funny how at work, all the talk about how many hours we put in and how hard we work and the lack of family life doesn’t matter when you look at the results because we still get the same paycheck. ROWE makes it crystal clear why you have a job and what you’re supposed to produce and how you measure it. It’s the manager’s job not to be monitoring the hallways but to be monitoring the work.
FCW: With ROWE comes a huge culture change. How do organizations meet that challenge?
Thompson: One of the key things we help organizations with is the removal of sludge — or toxic language. For example, “It’s 10:00 and you’re just getting in? I wish I could come in late every day.” Or “Another long lunch?”
Those kinds of comments make people feel resentful and guilty, so we work on environmental sludge-eradication strategies. We get every single person involved in removing the toxic language and replace it with results-focused, respectful language. If someone asks you, “Are you leaving early?” instead of making up an excuse that you’re not going to be there until 5 p.m., your answer could be, “Yes, is there anything you need?”
When you get that sludge out of the system, people don’t resent each other anymore.
FCW: How could ROWE improve the federal workplace?
Thompson: This kind of autonomous environment is exactly the way the next generation can work so they would choose to work for the federal government. But this generation won’t sit in meetings all day because they wouldn’t waste time like that. Now, if you take that generation and bring them into a 1950s workplace and say, “Here’s where you have to sit all day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by the way, you can’t go on Facebook and you can’t text your friends or anything like that,” they’re not going to do it. Or they’ll do it for a while and then change jobs.
What people are saying about this generation is that they don’t have a work ethic. Not true; they work just as hard and are just as motivated, but they’re not going to work the way we did. 1950 was a long time ago. Everything is changing in the world, and the workplace is staying stuck. And then we wonder why we can’t attract talent.
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