Reaping What You ROWE: A Management Model for the Talent Economy
Here and now, companies are struggling to navigate the Great Resignation and a post-pandemic world simultaneously. In both cases, employee expectations have changed, and employers are trying to establish parameters and figure out how to make work “work” in a flexible, virtual, hybrid, chaotic, and changing workplace.
This is a situation where ROWE would come in especially handy: Results Oriented Work Environment. I interviewed one of the ROWE trailblazers, Jody Thompson, when I wrote my book Talent Generation.
Jody and her colleague created the ROWE concept on the premise that if every person in the organization is guided by measurable results and given the autonomy to achieve those results, it will radically change the employer-employee relationship.
Not to be confused with flexibility, in a ROWE each person is 100 percent accountable and 100 percent autonomous. Managers manage the work, not the people. Employees are clear about what their measurable results are and empowered to do what they need to do to get the job done.
Jody and Cali Ressler developed and tested their ROWE theory while working in the HR department at Best Buy in 2004. It was an extremely successful experiment. Engagement scores went up, and productivity went up, but at a much higher level than with flexibility.
They shared the results of their experiment with the executive team, and in 2005 Best Buy made headlines with its official introduction of ROWE. The program, which was then described as ‘TiVo for your work’ was lauded as a next-generation HR strategy. Best Buy’s corporate employees no longer needed to punch a clock, would be held measured by results, and could work whenever, wherever.
ROWE reportedly helped Best Buy save $2.2 million over three years, reducing turnover 90 percent and increasing productivity by 41 percent.
Despite these amazing results, the big box retailer once again made headlines in 2013 when it decided to reverse ROWE and return to a mandatory eight-hour, on-site work day.
Why the switch? Power struggles and a fixation on how and where the work is done, rather than what work is being accomplished and why. This isn’t uncommon and it has led us to the situation we’re in now – widespread turnover, disengagement, and decline.
The practice of micro-managing how employees spend their time has become increasingly less effective in recent years and is often cited as a core reason for why young people disengage.
Autonomy, on the other hand, makes everyone in the company feel like a CEO: trusted, important, responsible, and unencumbered.
Hence, ROWE was founded.
I toured JL Buchanan’s (JLB) office while researching Talent Generation. JLB is a retail consulting firm based in Minneapolis and a ROWE.
Employees don’t have to come into the office and can work virtually at JLB. After all, in a ROWE, the office really doesn’t matter. An office is a tool. It’s a place that you don’t have to be.
There is also no assigned seating at JLB. No one has a desk or an office. There are no filing cabinets. The entire office is paperless.
When people arrive at work, they grab their bin, which is about the size of a shoebox and includes any personal items they want to keep at work. For most people, this includes a family photo and cords for their laptops and mobile devices. They then pick a place they want to work for the day. The office is open, comprised of large meeting rooms with glass walls, a café, and a large open space with tables, booths, and chairs. The open environment is designed to break down walls—literally—between roles and departments, thereby eliminating hierarchy and encouraging collaboration.
Making an intentional switch to ROWE made a positive difference at JLB. The environment fostered more collaboration, productivity, and boosted morale.
In recent years, other companies have experimented with autonomous workspaces, such as:
- Zappos, which eliminated managers and titles to distribute authority across ‘circles’ and the roles people fill within those circles;
- PwC, which created a ‘guilt-free’ work environment, urging associates to accommodate their personal needs, whether going to a yoga or attending their kids’ weekly soccer games.
- McKinsey, which allows employees to take up to 10 weeks off between projects to pursue their personal interests; and
- Barr Engineering Co., which has a ‘free-market structure’ that allows employees to choose the projects they want to work on.
The Gig Economy emerged alongside the tech boom and accelerated during the Great Recession. We knew then what is painfully apparent now: employees expect to have access to more part-time team opportunities, flexibility, a healthy work-life balance, and time to pursue personal interests or care for their families.
The entire workforce is moving into an entrepreneurial mindset, both figuratively and literally. In the quest to achieve higher profitability and productivity, employers pushed employees to the breaking point and the results have been dire.
In order for work to work again, a return to results-oriented outcomes is needed. Changing where and when work happens may have its skeptics and critics, but the results speak for themselves.
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