An Interview with Cali and Jody of the Results-only Work Environment (ROWE)

  • July 7, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 11 Comments

home-office

A results-only work environment (or ROWE) is a radical new way of working that focuses on results instead of face time. ROWE in practice means “each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want as long as the work gets done.”

I recently wrote about the ROWE concept and speculated about why ROWE hasn’t been implemented more widely.

After that first ROWE article, I received a number of questions about the specifics of implementing such a program. How exactly are results measured in a ROWE? What does a typical day look like for someone working in a ROWE?

To get some qualified answers, I collected questions and contacted Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson. Cali and Jody created ROWE originally for Best Buy and explained it in the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.


Cali and Jody consult with companies about how to implement ROWE effectively. They were kind enough to agree to do an interview with me here at Free Pursuits. Their answers to your questions and mine are below.

Barr: By far, the most common question people have asked about me ROWE is, “how do you measure results?” I know that each job is different, but can you explain the basics of measuring results, and provide some real-world examples?

Cali and Jody: The “magic” of ROWE is that it forces people to actually put measurements to everything they do. Many organizations have performance systems in place, but they aren’t being used to their fullest potential because people can slide by putting in time today. Once the time component is removed and physical presence/face time don’t matter, the only thing left is results. The SMART model (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) is a great one to use in a ROWE. In a traditional work environment, SMART becomes fluffy and the measurable part is often overlooked…not so in a ROWE.

We worked with one client where the manager responsible for employee engagement told his employee her goal was to “crack the nut on engagement”. The team was in a ROWE, and the employee said “How do I know what success looks like? How big is the nut? How far do I have to crack it?” In other words, she wasn’t going to settle for this vague goal with absolutely no measurement. In the past, she would have walked away and said “okay”, but not anymore.

We find that customer satisfaction (internal or external) is a great way to measure specific goals. If you don’t have customer satisfaction surveys in place today, they are a good thing to start.

How do managers set and communicate expectations under ROWE, and how do employees deliver results?

In a ROWE, the overall vision is set and then it’s up to teams to discuss the outcomes they’re working toward and determine the activities that will get them to those outcomes. That is the key: Focus on outcomes first and then come up with activities. In a traditional work environment, activities are the focus and people work on checking items off their lists without regard to the larger picture.

In a ROWE, it’s not up to managers to figure everything out. The entire team works together to determine how the work will get done. Managers and employees have performance discussions, and the manager’s role is to be a mentor and coach for employees.

Employees deliver results however they choose to – as long as deadlines are met and they are performing at a “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations” level, everything is good.

Seth Godin recently wrote an article for Time Magazine in which he predicted the end of the cubicle in 5 to 10 years. During that transition, he thinks there will be a huge focus on finding the essential people and outsourcing the rest. Have you seen this become the focus within ROWE companies?

ROWE companies don’t have a goal of outsourcing people, but they do want to weed out the people that are just putting in time. Every organization has a small percentage of people that are taking up space – essentially not doing much but playing the right political games and putting in a lot of face time. In a traditional work environment, they can hide because managers are focused on time and results – and it’s easier to manage time. But when that rug is pulled out from under managers, they are forced to performance manage those that aren’t pulling their weight. ROWE shines a big spotlight on those that aren’t performing – there’s nowhere to hide.

I’ve heard that some employees dislike the results-only system. Why would someone not like working in a results-only work environment?

We’ve never heard this! Employees that we’ve talked with, and consulted with, as part of an authentic ROWE absolutely love the environment. Sometimes, people who read about ROWE, or try to implement it themselves, misunderstand it as an environment that forces you to work outside the office at times other than 8:00 to 5:00. ROWE is most certainly not a work-from-home program and if working in an office building from 8:00 to 5:00 works best for you, that’s exactly what you should do.

There may also be people that aren’t clear about what they’re supposed to be doing that don’t like ROWE – because they know the environment will ultimately expose them. This can be especially scary for employees who have skated by in a traditional system for years…they know it’s time to shape up or be shipped out.

What does a typical day/week look like for a ROWE worker, and what are the biggest challenges new ROWE-ers face in the first 90 days?

Ah – that’s the beauty…there really is no “typical” day or week for a ROWE worker. Every day is what you make it. You might have breakfast with the kids in the morning, take the dog for a walk, have a couple conference calls, go to the office for a meeting, grocery shop, analyze a report and send information to co-workers from a coffee shop, have dinner with the family, play with the kids, do more work at night, and then go to bed. The next day, you skip rush hour traffic (because who in their right mind would sit in that!), take your mother to her doctor appointment, work from her house, have lunch with her, stop at the office to drop off some paperwork, participate in a conference call from your deck, coach your daughter’s soccer game, and work before you go to bed. In a ROWE, you are constantly weighing your time and making decisions about the most efficient, important ways to use this precious resource.

An employee at one of our client sites once shared that ROWE made him realize that time is a non-renewable resource – once it’s gone, it’s gone. Next time you’re sitting in your cube watching the clock tick, think about that and hopefully it will give you the courage to discuss ROWE with those around you.

In my previous article about ROWE, I speculated a little about why ROWE hasn’t caught on more. What do you think has kept the results-only model from spreading like wildfire?

It takes a courageous, forward-thinking, pioneering leader to take on something like ROWE. Unfortunately, there are a lot of leaders out there who, when faced with the opportunity to implement ROWE, refuse to walk their talk. They say they trust their employees and want to create an environment where they can do their best work, but they’re afraid to truly do it. The decision of whether or not to implement ROWE is a moment of truth for a leader – those that decide to say “yes” are few and far between, but they are exactly the people we’re looking for.

Leaders also know that once ROWE is introduced to their population, there’s no turning back. This can be a scary proposition and tends to hold people back from implementation. It’s easy to implement something that you know won’t make real change or that will become a flavor of the month. It’s another story to implement something that you know that will overturn the power structure in your work environment and forever change the way you and your employees approach work.

Ultimately, ROWE is not for wimpy leaders…the strong leaders will rise up, take the torch, and experience success. And the rest will come.

Does this answer your questions about ROWE? Does it seem like a practical solution for your company?

photo by Fabio Bruna

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Roy July 7, 2009 at 1:01 pm

As en employee, I would definitely benefit from this kind of work environment.

As an employer, I think it could be a good way of deciphering if one employee has too much and another too little work, or even if one gets paid too much/little compared to another. Or perhaps this would just tell me how efficient one employee works compared to another?

Cali & Jody July 7, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Hi Roy – ROWE definitely shines the spotlight on those employees that are performing and those that are not. There’s no hiding in a ROWE – if results aren’t being achieved, it’s very easy to see. Ultimately, ROWE organizations weed out those employees that were just taking up space. It’s certainly refreshing to know that the people you have working for you are all focused on your business with the same intensity you are (and they’re happier, too!).

Nate July 7, 2009 at 5:16 pm

This is an awesome interview! I really love the ROWE concept and I think more companies and businesses should use it. My mom owns a small consulting firm with 3 employees (me being one of them). She uses the ROWE idea it has been very good for her. I personally love working for her. I’m only a part time employee but from talking to the other two people who work under her, I know they feel the same. They have time to do other things and enjoy life, but they still get a ton of time to do whatever they want. A traditional time based system that managers use wastes SO MUCH time. Great post!

Corbett Barr July 8, 2009 at 1:38 pm

How did the use of ROWE come about at your mom’s consulting firm? Did she specifically come from reading about ROWE, or did it happen organically? How does she go about measuring results? Customer satisfaction surveys?

Colin Wright July 7, 2009 at 8:36 pm

I’ve loved the idea of ROWE since I first heard about it, and I think a more widespread implementation of it would lead to much great results across the economic board (a lot less deadweight in the system = a more dynamic, effective and efficient system).

I could see it really taking off if it were to be applied to a major (but currently failing) company like GM. Have you two looked into to taking on a sizable project like that in order to spread the good word into the main stream?

I’d be curious to read about some case-studies, too. Do you have any posted on a website? Are there some in your book?

Great interview, folks!

Corbett Barr July 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm

I would be very interested to hear Cali and Jody’s opinion about whether ROWE could be used at a company like GM, where so much of what they do is R&D and production. It seems like that would be a tough environment to implement a results-only program in. Maybe certain parts of a company like that could benefit?

Cali & Jody July 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Hi Colin – the book contains a lot of information about the Best Buy case study. To see others, you can download the ROWE Business Case at http://www.culturerx.com. There’s good stuff in there – you can also download a “How ROWE Are You?” quiz. Look in the Free Downloads section on the right side of the home page.

As for the sizable company question, we’ve actually been working with a major retailer on the West Coast that just finished their ROWE pilot with phenomenal success. They will be named soon – stay tuned!

James NomadRip July 8, 2009 at 12:13 pm

It is definitely something that would uproot virtually everything about the way most companies have always structured themselves.

It would be difficult for me to ever go back to a “traditional” company. Even those whose product I loved and ideals I tended to believe in, always seem so stuck on old, inefficient micro-managing techniques. Most “traditional” employees know how to go with that system. Be on a phone or always have something in your hand, and you look busy. Good enough for most places, but what a waste of everyone’s time and resources.

Corbett Barr July 8, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Just as people have figured out how to game the old system, I wonder if some have figured out how to game ROWE? Maybe it’s not as easy to game, if the results measurement has been designed correctly.

Thom July 13, 2009 at 6:56 am

A fascinating concept and article, this one. It’s interesting coming at this from an employee point of view, too, as many of us would like to work in an ROWE environment but due to the relative infancy of the project there are few firms out there who have embraced the concept.

Job hunting can be a draining process, but if more companies were set up like the ROWE examples like Best Buy then I doubt that would be the case. A company that treats employees like individuals and grown-ups is something all job-seekers would want, meaning the employer would see a higher calibre of applicants to their firm, along with the proven workplace benefits of the ROWE system.

Win-win. If only there were more employers who believed in it.

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