Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, should be the wave of the future. The problem? Often, employees are treated like children.

There’s a long article on Slate from over the weekend — I think it’s one of their most popular and most shared, all that — about ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment. Here’s the article. I’ve written about this kind of stuff a ton on this blog — see here and here, for example — so I won’t go super deep into everything (you can browse my other posts if you feel so inclined), but here’s a basic framework.

ROWE is based on the idea that a lot of old-school sales guys talk about: “My job is based on commission. If I don’t sell, I don’t eat.” This is based on the oldest-school motto of “eat what you kill,” which was quite literally how the world worked in its earliest incarnation. Under ROWE, you can choose to work from home whenever you want — with no vetting required. You can take 30 days of vacation if you want — with no vetting required. You can disappear for weeks at a time — and no one should be asking after you. All that matters is that you get your work done. There’s a series of metrics tied to your role — say, 10 percent sales growth or 50,000 new customers — and if you hit it, you get retained, paid, and possibly promoted. If you don’t hit it, there are consequences. Simple, right?

The obvious advantage here is that workplaces shouldn’t be standardized. In a 10K-employee office or a 200-employee office, not everyone is the same. A set of tasks takes Person A 45 hours to complete M-F; that same set of tasks may take Person B 32 hours to complete. Why, then, are Person A and Person B working the same schedule? And if they are, why isn’t Person B’s schedule designed around the idea of “20 percent time” or something similar? Since people aren’t the same, the sheer fact that hundreds (or thousands) of people can work essentially the same schedule is mind-boggling. If the goal is results (be that money, people enrolled, outreach, whatever) and you hit the results, who cares how long you’re there or where you’re sitting?

This goes to the second perceived advantage: theoretically, ROWE should reduce politics in an office. Seat time is massively important to some managers, almost irregardless of context. Example: I worked with a guy a few years ago who consistently got in at 10am or 10:30am (we all got in at 8:30-9am). Our main boss didn’t see him enter at 10:30am, but this guy also stayed often until 7pm (we would leave 5:30pm or so). Our boss did see him exit later. He got jumped into plum assignments all the time. It’s fine — he was good at his job — but it was a bit awkward because the rationale was always the exit time (or partially the exit time). He actually worked less hours than most of us, but he made it seem like he was a grinder. Under ROWE, all that should matter is results, plain and simple. Throw out the politics.

The third major pro here is that the world has changed, and so too has work. Most management philosophies are rooted in the 1950s (or even before!), but in the 1950s-1960s, we didn’t have shared software and e-mail and Skype and … well, hell, the list goes on for miles. The need for face-to-face is less. But here’s where the problems emerge.

The goal of a company/organization, in most cases, is to make money. When that goal isn’t being met, people tend to standardize back to the norm — “Maybe we shouldn’t try anything too crazy, because our competitors could get an advantage then!” — as opposed to innovating. You just saw this at Yahoo. Marissa Mayer came in with a huge amount of buzz/clout/context/reputation and shredded the work-from-home immediately. Best Buy was one of the companies using ROWE; when they hit a rough patch in 2008 and a bit beyond, they ultimately dropped ROWE (although via Slate, some arms of the company still use it covertly). When revenues are on the line, people want the management structure to be basic and comfortable, so often that becomes the norm (if it wasn’t the norm first).

That makes logical sense, but there’s one major problem therein: standard management is rooted in the idea, for better or worse, that if a person isn’t monitored actively, they will eff off and do something else (something more enjoyable or engaging) with their time. Sure, this happens, and it’s probably closer to the norm than not. But it creates a work culture — and again, this is broadly-speaking, whereas specific elements may be different — where adults are often treated like children (“You can’t work from home because the assumption is that you’d be off-task”). This was fine in an almost completely-male workforce of the 1940s/1950s, but now you have two people working, two parents working, child care costs rising, different schedules, etc. The context is different, so start treating employees like adults again. It could bolster engagement, which can bolster retention (who’s going to leave a job where they have a sweet deal that works for their spouse and their kids?), which can ultimately save costs.

And if you think letting adults have “free time” is doomed to fail, consider some Google initiatives — which have done just that and led to money-making products for the company.

There is an aspect of all this where anything different/new can be feared — but what if it doesn’t work? — and that hurts the adoption of things like ROWE. By and large, people can be brilliant in their own ways, but thinking that our most creative, forward-thinking people are in mid-to-large sized companies is probably a fool’s errand. Convincing others of change, be it a new diet or a new car or a new management structure, is one of the greatest, oft-studied challenges of human existence. So look, all this stuff is hard. But it can be simple: basically, take adults and treat them like adults. Assume they want to succeed, want to keep working there, want to keep earning money, and will push for results in order to do all those things. Don’t assume that if you let them have some time back, or work from another location, or whatever … that it automatically means they’re off-task. Think positively about your people, treat them as you wish you’d been treated on the way up the ladder, and see what happens. That’s how you start seeing more ROWE in the world.

Ted Bauer


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