Why Doesn’t Everyone Work in a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)?

  • May 31, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 15 Comments

lights-out-offices

Some people are able to live a life of flexible work hours and location independence without being self employed.

How do they do it? They’re some of the lucky few who’s employers have embraced a “results-only work environment” (or ROWE).

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.”


This new work environment is potentially the ultimate in work-life balance and freedom for the cubicle dweller. It’s a boon to highly-productive people, and it may be just what corporate America needs to stop from losing their best employees to smaller companies, startups, self-employment and freelancing.

The results-only work environment is a new invention, and so far it hasn’t been widely implemented. It was created by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson and explained in their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.

ROWE has most notably been implemented at Best Buy, the Fortune 100 electronics retailer, where all 4,000 of their headquarters-based staff have become unleashed. The experiment began seven years ago, when Ressler was just a 24-year old new hire at Best Buy.

So far, the results have been impressive. The authors of the program claim productivity being up an average of 41% on ROWE teams. Employees and managers alike seem to absolutely love ROWE where it has been implemented. Voluntary turnover at ROWE companies decreases by up to 90%.

Why Doesn’t Every Company Go Results-Only?

So, if the results are so impressive, why isn’t it being more widely adopted? Shouldn’t employees be pressuring their company’s management to set them free and watch results skyrocket? Shouldn’t management be convincing their boards of directors that this is the best way to improve bottom-line results?

There are a couple of likely reasons ROWE hasn’t been put into action at more companies. First, shortly after the concept broke onto the scene in 2007, the economy imploded. Big companies are too busy laying people off and trying to stay out of bankruptcy to think about implementing a radical and somewhat unproven change.

Second, on the surface this would seem to be simply an attempt by employees to get away with getting paid for slacking off. People have been talking about telecommuting and working remotely for years, but have had little evidence that it does much more than improve employee satisfaction and eliminate commutes.

Some big technology companies have actually let large portions of their staff permanently telecommute. Up to 50% of the workforces at Sun Microsystems, IBM and AT&T have no permanent office. None of them have gone as far as Best Buy, though.

Getting Results

Going results-only means changing a company much more fundamentally than just letting half of your staff telecommute. The flexibility of location is only a small part of ROWE. To make it work completely, the creators of the program argue the implementation must be a complete cultural change.

In an “authentic ROWE” company (as Ressler and Thompson call it), people do whatever they want whenever they want as long as the work gets done. This is great for high-performers, and bad for people who have learned to be rewarded more for face time than results. ROWE calls for eliminating employees who don’t produce results.

What constitutes results under ROWE exactly? That’s the part that most who try to implement the system will struggle with. Some jobs are hard to measure objectively, and not seeing people face-to-face very often can make it more difficult. That may be another reason the program hasn’t taken off.

Whatever the fate of the “authentic ROWE” program, the intent behind it is good for employees and companies (not to mention the environment). If you are at your wits’ end with the culture of face time at your company, you might consider becoming a ROWE advocate. It could improve the lifestyles of everyone you work with.

photo by Giant Ginkgo

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.


Think Traffic is now The Sparkline. Click here to check it out.

Or View The Archives

Jeremy June 1, 2009 at 6:23 am

Corbett,

As usual, great post. I did not realize that there actually was a name for this model. Good information.

I would like to throw out one other reason why this type of model doesn’t get implemented more often. It’s the fact that most managers/executives in today’s business world work on the old management paradigm and not the emerging paradigms. They believe that people can’t be productive unless they are on site and they can have face time everyday. Many of those managers were trained by managers with that viewpoint or have even taken management courses with this mindset. Until the paradigm shifts (which is beginning) it will be hard to see that change occur. The time is coming but it’s not here yet.

Thanks for the post.

Jeremy @ RefocusingTechnology.com

Corbett Barr June 2, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Good point, Jeremy. Most people have had a manager who believes in that paradigm at one point or another. I’d even say that the majority of businesses operate that way. That mindset is one of the main reasons I decided to become self employed.

Colin Wright June 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Wow, I also had no idea that there was an official name for this kind of work ethic (I always just assumed it was the entrepreneurial method…what you get back is based on the effort you put into it).

I’ve worked at a handful of different offices where the overlying culture encouraged spreading out one’s work over the span of a day, rather than working as quickly and efficiently as possible. Finishing your work early was rewarded with more work (and no additional pay or other benefits). Especially in smaller offices, where vertical movement is extremely limited, there is little reason to work harder because there really isn’t another position to get moved into (unless the office expands, at whch point you would likely be promoted for your time there, anyway).

Great article, and hopefully some people with influence will stumble upon (or StumbleUpon!) it and make some much-needed changes.

Corbett Barr June 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Colin – regarding the entrepreneurial method you mentioned, don’t assume that entrepreneurship is always results-focused. Many people who start companies also get stuck in the face-time paradigm. In fact, startups can be some of the worst offenders. The culture in Silicon Valley startups is especially biased towards working extreme hours in a particular location.

Brian Cendrowski June 2, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I remember reading an article about the Best Buy “results” model a couple years ago. I agree that it is an amazingly powerful business model. I’ve been in the web development services industry for years, and I’ve always pushed to try to separate time from value in my projects. So many industries have standard practices where they either bill hourly or they create project estimates based on the number of hours they think it will take to complete.

It never made any sense to me. If I can solve a $50,000 problem in 30 minutes, does that mean I should only get $60 for my solution? That might be extreme, but I think illustrates the point.

I think you hit on the great quandary in your post. How do you measure results? For a top level executive, it’s pretty easy. Look at the company’s bottom line. For those in the trenches, it’s hard to separate each individual’s contribution to the collective. It’s simply easier to measure time, so that’s the metric we use.

Then, you touch on another topic. What constitutes “do what you want as long as the work gets done?” I was working in a small company and my boss told me that. It was a “flexible” company, so I had some leeway on my work schedule, as “as long as my work got done” there wouldn’t be a problem. Well, the problem was that my work was never done. As soon as one task was completed, it was on to the next. If I ever ran out of things to do, I probably would have been laid off.

So, in my opinion, there are two key issues to implementing ROWE:
1. How do you measure results?
2. What scale do you use to determine below, average, and above average performance?

Obviously, it’s going to be different for every industry and every job. I don’t have any answers, but I think it’s great that you put this out there for us to think about.

Corbett Barr June 2, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Hi Brian. You raise a couple of good points. I’ve heard similar questions about measuring results and defining work product from other people who read the article.

Measurement of results is one of the most difficult aspects of business. It’s one of the biggest reasons we’ve retained much of the old manufacturing-based work rules as we’ve moved towards a knowledge worker economy. The amount of time someone spends working per day is easy to measure, so we continue to focus on it.

I hope to develop a post soon about measuring results and implementing ROWE. Thanks for the comment.

Rick April 25, 2010 at 5:57 am

I’m a software developer and for as long as I can remember my best work happens at 10pm.

The only problem with working like that is that going to bed at 2a and getting up at 6am is brutal plus, the idea that I need to sit my butt in a chair just because someone needs to see me there has always been off kilter in my world.

I’m a typical night owl and work better at night so my jobs have always had a great person who can muddle through the day getting things done and then kick more butt at night but would I rather just get my work done when I want and do it with more efficiency? You bet!

I love the ROWE movement and can’t wait for more companies to step aboard!

I love the idea of ROWE so much that I created a job board for ROWE “rowejobopenings dot com” so ROWE companies please sign up your jobs and lets get this thing started.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Sites That Link to This Post