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September 2, 2014
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Treating workers as adults

For knowledge workers, measuring output became entirely divorced from hours logged in the office.
By Seth Stevenson
Slate (*)

What if employees were judged solely on their work and not on the manner in which they did it?

NEW YORK — In 2003, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson were developing new human resources guidelines at Best Buy, the electronics retailer, when they suggested a profound shift in the way the company managed its employees. They wondered what might happen if they granted workers 100 percent autonomy and expected of them 100 percent accountability. What if employees were judged solely on the work they did and not at all on the manner in which they did it?

Ressler and Thompson dubbed their plan the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. The scheme involved some radical proposals. People could work from home absolutely anytime they felt like it, without needing a reason or excuse. There would be no such thing as a sick day or a vacation allotment — employees could take off as much time as they wanted, whenever they saw fit. Perhaps most provocative: All meetings would be optional. Even if your boss had invited you. Don’t think you need to be there? Don’t come.

In return for this absolute freedom, workers would need to produce. Bosses would set macro expectations (e.g., increase sales by 10 percent) and then assess the results without micromanaging (e.g., keeping tabs on who arrived at the office earliest in the morning or left latest at night). If the goal was met, there were no complaints from your boss about that Tuesday afternoon you spent at your kid’s soccer game. If the goal wasn’t met, no amount of face time around the office would substitute for the lack of results. Of course, if your job description involved opening up the store at 9am, fulfillment of that goal was a must. But for knowledge workers, measuring output became entirely divorced from hours logged in the office.

“You can imagine the [expletive] storm we created,” says Thompson. “We were letting people run free like unicorns. We were also shining a bright light on the people who’d previously been able to hide inside the system by showing up every day without actually accomplishing much.”

For Thompson, the key difference under ROWE is that superiors are managing the work instead of managing the people. It forces clear thinking on what the expectations should be for delivering results. By the same token, it eliminates the need to look at time sheets or to make someone feel guilty for leaving her desk to go to a dentist’s appointment.

Thompson claims the effect on employees is remarkable. “When you get to take over your own life and feel responsible for yourself and your work,” she says, “you feel proud and liberated and dignified. Managers come to us and say, ‘My people grew four feet! I can’t even recognize them.’ Something happens to you when you feel like an adult again at work. It’s the control, but it’s also the clarity on top of it. I now need to know what my results are supposed to be so I can prove that I’m getting there.”

Thompson and Ressler have laid out their blueprint for ROWE in a book titled “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.” Among their list of best practices is their assertion that for ROWE to succeed, a workplace must eliminate something they term “sludge.” Sludge is any comment that’s meant to make a co-worker feel guilty about process rather than results. For example: “Nice of you to join us, Judy,” when Judy arrives at the office a little late in the morning. Or: “I wish I had kids like Bill. He never has to be at work,” when Bill leaves early to see his daughter’s school play. These sorts of comments reinforce an outdated view of the relationship between a knowledge worker’s time spent at a desk and his overall productivity.

But what happens when we give ROWE a taste of its own medicine and judge it solely on its results, instead of its intentions? Best Buy’s implementation of ROWE in 2005 had some surprisingly positive results, according to Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and the co-director of the university’s Flexible Work and Well-Being Centre, who has conducted a number of studies on the effects of ROWE on Best Buy employees. Moen’s data found that ROWE, among other things:

— Led to employees sleeping almost a full hour more on nights before workdays, simply because they were less stressed about going to the office.

— Made people more likely to stay home or go to a doctor when they were sick, which improved overall health and reduced the spread of illness around the office.

— Allowed people to exercise more.

— Reduced turnover.

— Improved morale.

“Our evidence shows that the sense of control over when, where and how you work really does make a difference in terms of the quality of employees’ lives,” says Moen.

That all sounds great for the employees. But Ressler and Thompson claim the company benefited, as well. According to them, voluntary turnover rates went down as much as 90 percent on ROWE teams, while productivity on those teams increased by 41 percent. (Best Buy’s stock price tumbled in 2008 along with those of other consumer stocks dependent on discretionary spending, and the company has stumbled along to some extent ever since — suffering from broad trends that have slammed many brick-and-mortar retailers.)

After gaining steam and winning adoption at a number of companies in the wake of Best Buy’s well-publicized experiment, ROWE-style workplaces seem recently to have fallen out of fashion. Marissa Mayer ended work-at-home privileges for Yahoo employees in 2013, not long after she became CEO of the company. Mayer claimed that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together” in the same physical space — echoing the logic espoused by managers who favour open-plan offices and the collegial mingling they encourage. Even Best Buy, the original home of ROWE, discontinued the practice last year, after the arrival of both a new CEO and some less-than-stellar performance. “It’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy,” said a spokesman announcing the decision, “and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

“These are employer-led policies,” says Moen, “and when you have new employers or tough times, the norm in organizational change is to go back to basics. We saw that in Yahoo when Marissa Mayer got there, and the same with Best Buy when they had their financial difficulties. But in fact they’re not really going back to basics. Because they still expect people to answer email at home and be available at all hours. It’s just taking away whatever control employees have.”

@stevensonseth

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