From Results-Oriented to Results-Only: the move to ROWE

Since my last post on Happiness at Work I’ve been researching happiness, motivation and work. In my search for the ideal workplace, what it looks like, and how that compares to my own experience and that of my colleagues, I’ve had to question my own assumptions about work.

Why does work (sometimes) suck?

Why do many of us believe that work should be filled with drudgery? That it’s somewhere we go, not something we do? Why do we get paid for our time, instead of outcomes we achieve for the organization? Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson explore these questions in their book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. Ressler & Thompson are the accidental founders of Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). ROWE is a movement borne out Best Buy’s corporate headquarters to become an Employer of Choice for talented people. Employer of Choice….hmmm, where have I heard that before?

So what is ROWE anyway? It’s a shift in the way we think about work – it’s the move from not just a results-oriented workplace, but to a results-only workplace. It’s a workplace where -

Employees can do whatever they want, whenever they want, AS LONG AS THE WORK GETS DONE.

If that sounds like Heaven to you, read the book.

Why does work (actually) suck?

You walk by a colleague, they’re sitting at their desk staring at their computer, lost in thought.  They might be surfing the ‘net, emailing colleagues or friends, reading or writing. None of these things actually guarantees they’re working.  None of this means they’re not working either.

In an environment where we use the same tools to communicate with friends as we do to work on high priority projects, and the line between friend and colleague blurs,  it’s increasingly difficult to manage staff by walking around and looking at them.

Picture of people looking at a computer

Are these people working on watching a YouTube video? Hard to tell.

If we can’t tell if people are working by looking at them, how can we tell? Why do we continue to insist that butts are in chairs from 9-5 if it doesn’t actually mean they’re working?

According to Ressler and Thompson, managing time is easier than managing results. Policies and practices reinforce these ideas about time and work, even those meant to increase work-life balance, for example, ‘flex time’.  They argue that these programs don’t work because the premise is flawed – these alternatives are still based on monitoring time and activities rather than results.

So what’s the real issue? Managing employees by controlling their time and activities tells them they are not trusted. It says “Left to your own devices, you would goof off rather than work.” ROWE is about managing results. Research done by Dr. Phyllis Moen and Dr. Erin Kelly demonstrates that increased control over work increases employee satisfaction and team productivity while reducing staff turnover.

Hold on, does work (really) suck?

Ironically, research on optimal performance by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, reveals that work is one of a number of paths to an enjoyable life. Anyone with a hands-on hobby, or has spent an entire career focused on one task or mission, knows that work can result in pure joy. Certainly we know from experience that work doesn’t have to be dismal.

So, if work can be so enjoyable, why isn’t it? Survey results presented by Ressler and Thompson revealed that the problem wasn’t the tasks that people were asked to perform – it was the workplace culture. In a nutshell, our outdated beliefs about work keep us in a cycle of mindless busy-ness and anxiety.

Not surprisingly, the authors of Why Work Sucks found that employees who have control over their time perform better, not worse. The fears were mostly unfounded; those that preferred to goof off promptly left the organization (or were fired).

What are we going to do about it?

Think ROWE is impossible for government? These government organizations are working in ROWE:

That said, I’m a realist, and I know most of the people reading this probably don’t have it in their control to implement ROWE in their workplace. What can we do today to move towards, at minimum, a results-oriented workplace?

Let’s do what every entrepreneur or self-employed person already does – question every activity we typically do in the context of whether or not it advances the goal of the organization. Meeting mania? Consider declining. Judging (or “Sludging”) your colleague for coming in at 10am? Mind your own beeswax. Ask yourself and your colleagues if you need to be together to work together.

If you’re a manager, reward based on results. Don’t reward people solely for spending time in the office. Rewarding people for being there promotes presenteeism. It de-motivates high performers. If there’s no reward for working quickly, efficiently or more effectively, than why bother? Set performance targets that are related to visible outputs* and outcomes rather than time. Be brave: address performance issues head-on.

(*What are visible outputs? Probably anything you’d put on your “Shipped” list.)

You can also join ROWE & Federal Government group on GovLoop, if you’re interested in being kept in the loop, at least with what’s going on in the U.S.

I’m curious though – do you know how to distinguish between activities and results that are your responsibility? As knowledge workers and specialists in process and policy-based roles, what do your visible outputs look like? What have you shipped this year?

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About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
This entry was posted in Improving the Public Service and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to From Results-Oriented to Results-Only: the move to ROWE

  1. Amanda says:

    This has the earmarks of reasonableness, but based on both experience and experimental investigations, yet I can see possible issues.

    One of the worst work environments I saw ever created occurred when people were measured on the number of transactions they performed. How demoralizing! Not all “transactions” are created equal, but no matter, that’s what “counted.” It was remedied with an atmosphere of trust — Since this changed, people are now really engaged and motivated to do the interesting troubleshooting tasks that use their intelligence and creative ability. Solving the problem feels good no matter how you count it. There are, however, time cut offs in this line of work that are out of anyone’s control that act as extrinsic spurs.

    Second, how do you turn play into work? Offer extrinsic rewards. Play (a.k.a. really interesting work) is an end in itself. Think of all the people who research and contribute to wikipedia or who volunteer. I think Daniel Pink did a TED on that subject, but it has been “known” for quite awhile. But I guess more people would need to have found their vocation for this to be anything other than blue sky. It is often a struggle.

    Another thing that should be considered is that a certain approach to managing work will be favouring various MBTI preferences. Not all people are Js on the MBTI. Half of us are Ps.


  2. Mark says:

    @Amanda has raised the biggest issue w/the practical implementation of a ROWE. How do you accurately measure someone’s contribution to the team?

    In a factory-type situation, it’s easy = widgets built. In a knowledge-based role, it’s extremely difficult. Comparable units of work are very difficult to measure.

    That aside, how are you measured now? As Laura mentions, it’s ass-in-seat time which is meaningless other than indicated that you may or may not be good at looking busy and/or following the group mentality.

    So what’s better, no metric (yet) or a useless one?

    Even though it can be tough to quantify, the data seems to indicate that environments where teams are made up of trusted, capable, responsible adults are outperforming traditional workplaces or at the very least, holding status quo for productivity but with a much happier team.

    The book builds the argument well, it’s worth the read.

    More resources;

    – from Quora
    – Netflix’s culture
    – Best Buy case study (referred to in the book)
    – similar but more out there the 4hr Work Week by Tim Ferris

  3. I’ve thought about the ROWE approach in theory and think it sounds great for close-knit (small/medium sized) organizations. But what about the realities of working in a large institution? I think one has to be heavily networked and tied into an organization (as an employee) to be successful using ROWE, not to mention have a manger who is also heavily networked and understands the organization’s history/culture, priorities and upcoming plans. While ROWE in a large setting might not be unattainable, I find it could be difficult without strong information sharing to support employees in their efforts to contribute to the organization’s larger goals.

    I’d be curious to know what ROWE says about downtime and in between project time? These are the times when I most find myself being “busy” and sometimes that busy work as Amanda said is actually important. Maybe I don’t even know that I’ll eventually reap results from this time :) Isn’t this the purpose of Google’s 20% time?

  4. Amanda says:

    I’m inclined to think that the evaluation of the performance of trusted, capable and responsible people wouldn’t rely on quantitative measures unless the thing they’re supposed to produce is physical, like money or consumer products. In the public service, we don’t exist to make profits (and to be efficient is not the PS correlate of profit, since efficiency is a means, a way of doing things, and not an end in itself. Efficiency can only be gauged with reference to intended intrinsic ends; e.g., peace, social harmony, health, opportunities to grow, edification, sense of community and quality of life stuff .)

    Sure, there are social stats but those rely at the outset on the quality of the definitional criteria, where the effects of definitional narrowness can in turn be obscured by the accuracy of the numbers. (e.g., ‘17.28% of pre-schoolers displayed “aggressive” behaviours’ – what does “aggressive” mean, in the measurable sense, as opposed to the experienced sense?)

    IMO in our society we confuse means (e.g., efficiency, being measurable) with intrinsic ends (the public good, harmony, etc.). We can only, at best, manage to come up with partial indicators of the actual results.

    Warning: No criterion is exhaustive. The implication is that legitimation-by-methodology is a very dangerous project outside of the “hard sciences” and may even prove to be dangerous there as well. In the PS we should never make the mistake of confusing our indicators with the actual results or methodology with objectivity.

    The emphasis on quantifiability is probably a hangover from the energy of the enlightenment and the astounding success of the very few areas of science where it is occasionally possible to come up with exhaustive operational definitions. If measurability becomes the only criterion of objectivity, we have really limited the options to assess the validity of our statements, i.e., our ability to voice, as reasoning agents.

    Think about it — no matter how much “empirical evidence” we have, in the end it is our capacity for reasoning that allows us to collect the relevant evidence and assess it. To me, the emphasis on measurement per se is a legitimation device and one that implies a lack of trust in ourselves and each other as capable and responsible reasoning agents.

  5. Mark says:

    @Amanda you’ve raised some excellent points. Even just looking at implementing a ROWE forces a team/org to look at what they are paying employees for.

    In some environments it’s easy to answer. Retail stores pay their employees to cover specific business hours and provide service to any customers that may show up. Implicit in this arrangement is the case when 0 customers come to the store, leading to the “other duties” line in a job description.

    Things get a lot fuzzier when looking at some areas of the public service or other knowledge based organizations.

    I think this touches a bit on @Mary Beth’s point and it may seem odd but what am I on salary for? What’s the expected output for my work year?

    Is it by project? To generate new ideas? To be physically accessible during certain hours?

    There are no clear lines between a knowledge workers job and other aspects of their life. We’ve all had ideas in the middle of the night, what are we supposed to do with them? If I’m expected to generate new ideas and perspectives, what if I’m not in the right mental space 9-5? isn’t it best for everyone if I do something else until I’m more productive?

    There are so many questions around ROWE, the only way we’re going to get any answers is by exploring the possibilities that this type of environment may provide. It will be one heck of a battle to get there but I believe it’s worth it.

  6. Laura says:

    @Amanda – Thanks for bringing the level of the conversation into the philosophical! As someone who spends a good chunk of time working in the performance measurement space I have seen it done badly more than I’ve seen it done well. Leaving common sense out of the equation will guarantee the wrong things are measured (then held over people’s head to torture them with). I have to disagree that it’s “extremely difficult” to measure knowledge workers contribution to an organizational outcome – it’s just not an exact science that can be quantified.

    As @Mark mentions, research points to trusted and engaged teams being more productive. Studies done in public sector organizations demonstrate that engaged employees provide better service which leads to increased trust and confidence in Government. Service-based organizations like the public sector would do well to consider a customer or client satisfaction score in the mix. Drivers of satisfaction for public sector services have been uncovered (timeliness is at the top for all service channels – phone, web, in-person and email) which is quite easy to measure.

    Good performance management is about telling a story – and what makes for a good story are facts (data) and logic that ties that data about activities to data about intended outcomes.

    Some of the best performance stories are coming from places with the hardest to measure sectors. USAID for example, in one of their reports tells a story about funding a road that resulted in increased economic prosperity in X# of people living in rural areas along that road by reducing time to travel to the city from 16 hours to 4 hours.

    I agree with @Mark – we’re each getting paid to do a job and employees and managers need to discuss what that is and how they will be assessed. Though not perfect, DFAIT (a large, global government department with intangible objectives) implemented a Performance Management system that was qualitative, results-focused and based on the organization’s mandate. Everyone’s performance agreement flowed out of their manager’s agreement, from the top down. “Performance measures” changed each year, and could be quantitative, qualitative or anecdotal – people were free to include anything that demonstrated a contribution towards that person’s (and hence the organizations) objectives. Although some people just did the bare minimum, others took it as an opportunity to clarify expectations and understand their role in the context of the organization’s mandate.

    Where that approach fails is the opportunity is in capturing “talent analytics”. Public sector organizations are very far away from the data quality and analysis capability that companies such as Google and Best Buy use to determine indicators such as traits that are likely to perform well (higher productivity) and the number of interviews that is ideal to hire the right candidate (less turnover). (Read all about it in the October 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review.) That kind of research has resulted in quantifying employee engagement – for example, Best Buy finds that ‘engaged’ retail employees result in $100,000 more sales per year. They also find that employees who blog are 10% more engaged.

    Before you tell me that you can’t quantify employee engagement in the public sector, let me tell you that not only is it possible, it’s already being done – each department was given reports about their levels of employee engagement based on the last Public Sector Employee Survey. So, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed, to quote a wise person.

    @MaryBeth – I agree with you that information management will be the greatest challenge of the next decade. I did research on Google’s 20% and it’s not ‘free time’ as widely interpreted – it’s structured, pre-approved, employee-initiated cross-functional project work that needs to demonstrate results in order for employees to continue to have approval to spend time on it. I think we’re already doing that in pockets around the government, so the question in my mind is how do we normalize this practice as Google has done?

    Thanks to all of you for your insightful and thought-provoking comments. Wow!

  7. Amanda says:

    Mark, thanks for your questions. They’re interesting. I want to look at some of the ROWE issues you raised in terms of your links to Netflix information above.

    It reminds me that the life of the hunter-gatherer was pretty flexible, but pretty fraught nonetheless. People responded to available opportunities and those that were able to combine the talent AND serendipity to adapt survived, and those who didn’t…. The landscape was volatile and responsiveness and smarts were the keys to survival.

    But then came agriculture and organization/order seemed paramount as did the ability to protect one’s assets from outside organizations. Slavery, the divine right of kings all emerged along with this technical advancement – but average human longevity and the availability of goods was vastly improved. Pyramids symbolize the hierarchy even today. Political savvy was important to individuals, and brilliance of organization/vision was important in leaders.

    Subsequently the industrial revolution kept order/hierarchy demands pretty much the same, largely mitigating the volatility of the experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, except for the dethroning of kings and their “divine right”(who we’ve replaced with “the economy” i.e. the merchant king).

    Now we’re into a knowledge economy — but is it really best to call it a knowledge economy? Knowledge is about having things pinned down, while the now economy is more about potential and creativity. I’d call it the living hypothesis economy. Surfing the change wave. If you reexamine the Netflix philosophy as presented on the slides you linked to (LOVED the bottom half of 61 BTW hehehe) you’ll notice that achievement still has to mean doing what has already been planned according to the budget.

    So my question is, how do you identify a result in a “creativity economy” since almost by definition you can’t have planned for it? It’s easy in the short term, with an increase in sales and staying within budget e.g., etc., but what about “preadaptive” actions? Toronto’s former mayor Miller admired the person who designed the Bloor Viaduct to include a subway train line support, before subway trains had been invented. Is it conceivable that measures by themselves can reward only short-termism? There are a lot of questions about what results means IMO.

  8. Amanda says:

    Laura – I wrote my last post very slowly and you had posted your response by the time I posted in.

    I like this idea: “Though not perfect, DFAIT (a large, global government department with intangible objectives) implemented a Performance Management system that was qualitative, results-focused and based on the organization’s mandate. ”

    I’m all for that, especially keeping with mandates. But having managed some small scale projects in somewhat volatile environments I can tell you the biggest by far resource waster is having to pin down all of the details in advance AND having to refrain from diverting to unanticipated opportunities.

    We are obliged to report on our activities and we should, but instead of having to report “we did everything we set out to do on budget”, one day I think we should be able to say “we started off on track but then this amazing realization happened and we saw that our track, as we had initially conceived it, wasn’t the best option for Canadians so we changed it, exploiting a really awesome opportunity that came our way out of the blue.” As it stands, we have no opportunity to do that.

  9. Laura says:

    @Amanda – excellent insights and examination of the problem space. Thanks for taking the time to post your comments. I couldn’t agree with you more. Please do keep pushing the envelope, as those are the stories Canadians want to hear and that it’s up to us to try to tell them. The opposite of either of these situations is to not to question activities or the outcomes they are meant to produce, which is (almost) as bad as

    I ask you – how do you know you’re achieving results? What stops you from telling the story you want to tell? Sounds like you’ve had the unfortunate experience of working in a slide 61 environment! (I did too for a while…didn’t last long.) How do we move towards this type of culture and get away from a negative, rules-based structure?

    And @MaryBeth – I forgot to mention that the whole time issue in the book is rendered moot. They don’t track time at all in a ROWE (similar to slides 65-68 of the NetFlix presentation linked above). People agree in teams what everyone has to do and then they do it, get fired, or leave. Not everyone was well-suited to working in a ROWE, for a variety of reasons.

  10. Amanda says:

    How do we move towards a culture where we can be less rules driven and more flexible, open to opportunities? First, a lot of our issues our mired in the parliamentary process of planning and reporting. That’s just how it is unless there are better democratic models we could look at and move to, but that’s not up to us at this level.

    Second, the reason our models are problematic is as Malcolm Gladwell said (starting about 5 minutes in) – they are no longer effective in allowing us to define and solve the kind of problems we need to solve in the way we used to. We don’t know what information we’re missing.

    Third, things go bureaucratic when we start using our methods to legitimate our ends, rather than adapting methods to the ends we want to achieve. We lose sight of what we’re doing and become mired in rules and procedures. Barry Schwartz warns of the dangers of Rules and Incentives in this regard in his TED talk, “Our Loss of Wisdom.”

    So what we need to do is, as people already know and have been talking about, is to learn to be responsive and resilient, rather than trying to have all the squirrelly little details pegged down in advance. Just get the non-negotiables in place and move forward understanding where you’re going and looking for opportunities to move forward along the way. In the intro to his 2008 report, the Ontario Environment Commissioner said,

    He goes on to emphasize redundancy, diversity, the accumulation of reserves and maintaining a size appropriate to the energy flow available as contributors to resilience.

    So in a nutshell, know where you are headed, be open to redefining your horizons as you move forward and see more, but keep your intention true to your value/end, being sure not to legitimate ends with methodology or shallow indicators for actual results and thereby end up in a pointless squirrel wheel of processes. This requires a tolerance for risk and a tolerance for ambiguity.

  11. Amanda says:

    I noted the quote disappeared and my following paragraphs got indented and italicized :(

    The commissioner quote was:

    You can’t know what will happen: all you can do is work to make the system as resilient as possible, so that it will rebuild itself and restore desirable functioning.
    So perhaps we should not attempt to manipulate or manage or fix the complex systems that shape our society; that really can’t be done. Rather our task is to build resilience where we can and when we can to the extent we understand it.

  12. Laura says:

    Well said Amanda! Very well said.

  13. ResultsHealthyFood says:

    Uh, ahem, I don’t mean to interrupt your intellectual and philosophical discussion on results. Can we get a result on the user experience working group theme, the famous UXWG theme? It’s been more than a year since the user experience working group has been working on it. When can we expect to see it ??!!
    A result always has a time attached to it, no? If it takes forever, then it wouldn’t be a result, wouldn’t it, even if your boss is not watching you?

  14. Laura says:

    lol. What makes you think our bosses are not watching @ResultsHealthyFood? Every member has their managers approval to spend at least 2 days a month on the Working Group – that’s written in the Terms of Reference. We’ve been as transparent as possible in our workplace; what can be shared has been posted on GCPEDIA. Since you’re posting anonymously, I can’t see whether or not you have access to this internal working tool, but if you are in fact an employee, I encourage you to ‘watch’ that space. That’s where we’ll continue to share as and when we can. We can provide more materials there than externally as we are bound by the Government’s Code of Conduct in which we commit to not sharing all the details of ongoing projects.

    Unfortunately, the timeline for when the UXWG theme is released is not in my control, nor is it in the control of the UXWG. I will blog more about the results of the Working Group soon, but I honestly don’t know when the theme will be approved and released publicly. I will be the first to blog about it when it is possible though!

    I also came across this interesting article about ROWE that I thought I’d share…getting back to the original topic of this post:

    Thanks for holding us to account @ResultsHealthyFood…that’s just the motivation I need to jot down some notes about our results so far.

  15. Laura says:

    Need help explaining ROWE to your boss?

    Downloads & Tools to help you explain ROWE have been added to the ROWE website by @caliandjody

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