"Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution," by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, is an easy read that outlines the concept of ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) and how implementing ROWE can revolutionize work as we know it.
"Imagine a workplace where employees can do whatever they want whenever they want, as long as the work gets done," the book's jacket reads. "No more pointless meetings, racing to get in at 9:00, or begging for permission to watch your kid play soccer. You make the decisions about what you do and where you do it."
To be fair, ROWE is not really new - EBN profiled Ressler and Thompson in a report about ROWE at Best Buy a few years ago (see "Further Reading" box) - but in today's increasingly pressurized, digitized and economized culture, perhaps the concept is ripe for growth.
Still, what Ressler and Thompson are suggesting goes way beyond the bounds of traditional flextime and telework arrangements. Can it really work on a widespread, national scale? And what would it do to our culture if it did?
In a recent sit-down with Thompson, I asked her those questions and more.
EBN: Obviously, you don't think work actually sucks. So, as opposed to saying, "Work sucks," what is it about our current work environment that isn't working well - is it our work processes, our workflow, the culture of the corporate environment, a combination of those things?
Thompson: When we say "Work sucks," we don't mean that the work people do sucks. People like what they do. But what sucks about work is the culture and the way that people are forced to do the work.
What makes people stressed out, feeling resentful and feeling overworked and overwhelmed are the 1950s roles and guidelines from the industrial era that are still running the workplace today. We're expected to show up, put in our time. If we have to do something in the middle of the day, we have to take time off or ask permission. It's a very paternalistic structure, and that's what sucks about it. We don't have control over our time.
EBN: Why do you think that structure persists even now in the 21st century? Is it a sense of employer distrust - they don't trust employees to be truthful about where they are, how they're managing their time?
Thompson: You hit right on it - it's about not trusting people. But the other thing is, people aren't clear about the outcomes they're expected to achieve, and they're not clear on how to measure it. So, it's easier to look at time + physical presence = results. So, if my people show up every day - even if I don't know what they're doing - at least they're at work.
The trust thing comes in because they're not sure what people are supposed to be accomplishing. And so teleworkers get asked by their managers, "I need to see what you're working on every hour." But they don't do that when you're in the office!
Then, people feel guilty if they aren't in the office or feel judged if they don't put in a lot of face time.
It's interesting that we don't trust people unless we can see them, but even if we can see them it doesn't mean they're doing work. It just means they're at the workplace.
So, the [ROWE] concept is around identifying exactly what people are supposed to accomplish and how to measure it. And in every job, you can figure that out.
EBN: I think what makes ROWE so scary to employers is that it's so far afield from what they think flexibility is, so it can seem unsettling in a traditional workplace. How can professionals who want to transition to ROWE overcome those fears?
Thompson: Best Buy's culture was just like any other corporate culture - rules, guidelines, people coming in early and staying late because that's what got rewarded. So we knew starting out that it couldn't be a top-down initiative, something that managers control. When flexibility is managed, it becomes inflexible.
We have a migration strategy to "unstick" the culture, help everybody adopt, over time, this way of thinking. Everyone on a team has to be involved in the change, and it needs to be organic, and people need to own it.
The only way a results-only work environment can be shaped is if every single person is involved in knowing what their job is [and] what they're accountable for, [so workers are] not trying to have work-life balance, but actually having a life. Time becomes irrelevant. As long as you're getting your work done, that's all that matters.
EBN: For managers and companies that might still hesitate, thinking, "If we just let people do what they want whenever they want, what does measurement look like?"
Thompson: When they ask us how to measure, we ask them, "How are you doing it now?" And then they generally realize they're not.
In a traditional work environment, goals are set by management and handed down to the people. In a results-only work environment, what we do during migration is get teams attached to the outcome of their work. Then, managers and people together figure out [goals] to measure how they're actually getting to that outcome.
It forces the question, "Why do I even have a job?" It's either, "I'm a bricklayer, just laying bricks all day long," or "I'm part of a team helping to build a cathedral." When you're attached to the larger outcomes, you're not going to do any activities that waste your time. So, employers can do more without hiring more.
EBN: But if that's true, what implications does ROWE have for the current economy? If employers can do more without hiring, what do we do about unemployment?
Thompson: I think there will be a lot of changes over the next 10 years in things like how we utilize energy, which will create more jobs.
But when people get into a results-only environment, they feel more free and creative. So, I think ideas will start flowing and as new ideas emerge, it will create more jobs as well.
EBN: There are different generations and lots of diversity in the workplace, so how would you tell employers to address different comfort levels and work styles among employees when implementing ROWE?
Thompson: This idea works so well with the four generations in the workplace right now, because it levels the playing field and gives people more focus.
If I am a traditionalist, and I just really like getting up in the morning, putting on my shirt and tie and going into the office, I can. But it's not going to get rewarded any more than someone who doesn't.
When we implement ROWE, the whole mindset shifts. People start to realize that in working this way, I can do all the things that I was waiting for retirement to do. Everyone has the desire, no matter what generation they're in, to have control over their life. That's what ROWE gives everybody.
EBN: How do you account for losing the in-person camaraderie in close-knit work groups when people are used to spending long hours every day together? When everyone is doing their own thing, how do groups stay connected?
Thompson: When everybody is focused on the same thing - the outcome - how people relate to each other, keep up-to-date with each other, changes. You start attaching to people you want to attach to, versus connecting just because you're in the same workplace.
There's less forced friendship, and the focus in on the work. Period.
EBN: Would you say morale doesn't matter as much, or it just becomes secondary to the work?
Thompson: The morale in a results-only work environment skyrockets. People feel more respected, more compassionate, more caring. They feel like an adult and say things like, "I feel so much better about my life, and I actually like the people I work with now."
They're so liberated and energized. It's like the American dream on steroids.
EBN: Can ROWE work everywhere, or are there some places where it just can't work?
Thompson: It can work everywhere and here's why: If you say, "It can't work here," what you're really saying is, "We can't focus on results here." That's the bottom line.
When people first think of ROWE, they're still thinking about flexibility, but it's not flexibility. Flexibility is a scheduled thing, where everyone works 8-5, and flexibility is anything outside of that.
In a results-only work environment, there's no schedule, so there's nothing to be flexible around.
EBN: Since you believe ROWE can work for everyone, project 10-to-15 years down the road if it catches on. What does our national culture look like if most people work in a results-only work environment?
Thompson: Ten or 15 years down the road, here are the things ROWE will affect:
Traffic behavior, real estate - if I don't need to build a big office building with cubes that will fit everybody - [and] how we interact within our communities.
Today, we say things like, "I don't volunteer in my community because I don't have time." Or, "I don't patronize my local coffee shop or gym because one is provided for me at the office." People will be in their communities more.
How we build families and interact with our families will change. Right now, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the hours when the worse things happen to children. [With ROWE], people will be able to be where they need to be for their families and manage the demands of their life in a way that's common sense. And people will stop being judged for living that way.
I think it will create a society that's compassionate, and caring and focused on what's important.
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