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Focused on Results

A Results Only Work Environment redesigns the workplace. It is not flextime, where an employee receives permission to work certain hours, every day, such as 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Under the tenets of ROWE, an employee may have different hours every day of the week—and not have to seek permission to do it.

The ROWE story started at Best Buy corporate in 2001, when an internal task force was formed to figure out how to make the company a top choice for workers. A survey found that what employees desired most from their workplace was trust, as in trust with their time. This planted the seed for what would become the Results Only Work Environment. It is now standard for all of Best Buy’s 3,000 corporate employees, they say.

Some of ROWE’s perks: No sitting at your desk looking busy even if you don’t have anything to do, just to make your boss think you are busy. No more comments from co-workers about you being 15 minutes late for work. No more mandatory attendance at meetings.

It’s a professional culture that suits Mark Wells, a 29-year old eLearning Training Specialist who develops Web-based training programs for Best Buy’s retail employees. Wells is single and lives in trendy uptown Minneapolis. When he accepted his position, many of his friends criticized him for “selling out to corporate America.” Today, those same friends are envious of the lifestyle he has because of ROWE.

He contends his schedule has allowed his current relationship to survive and thrive, since he can spend plenty of time with his girlfriend, a server who often starts her day as late as 3 p.m. During the summer, he rarely goes into the office, instead often opting to travel to his favorite summer music festivals.

“If you can really start to do this program right, it’s seamless and (co-workers) don’t know where you’re at,” said Wells. “Another guy in my department lived in another state for a couple of months. Amazing, right?

He says ROWE may sound like it’s too good to be true, but it’s not. He addresses some of the common concerns about the program, such as how collaboration happens (mostly online, via Instant Messenger, or using text messages). As a result, does he feel he can disconnect from work? Or is he ever chained to an electronic leash?

“I definitely don’t feel like I’m always connected to work,” he said. “I actually feel the opposite of that.”

Of course, Wells and Petersen have 21st century jobs that are highly dependent on technology, and such jobs adapt quite well to this program, but Ressler and Thompson maintain that everyone can benefit from ROWE—from administrative assistants up to the highest executive. Ressler and Thompson’s book has a whole appendix devoted to the “Yeah, but” comments they hear when they describe the philosophy. “One of the biggest changes that people need to make in order to make a ROWE happen is to throw out the notion that time equals productivity,” Ressler said. “In ROWE, the amount of time it takes to do something doesn’t matter as long as you meet the deadline.”

On-the-Job Freedom

The premise behind ROWE is “nothing new,” said Greg Northcraft, the Harry Gray Professor of Executive Leadership in the College’s Department of Business Administration. For example, faculty members in academia have operated under the premise of results-focused management for decades. In the business world, flextime initiatives and even flexible benefits programs have also attempted to provide employees with opportunities for more freedom on the job, and management-byobjectives (MBO) programs traditionally have focused management efforts primarily on employee outcomes rather than behavior or processes.

“People like having the opportunity to make decisions about the organization of their own work,” Northcraft said.

People like Petersen. Before her team implemented ROWE, she had been laying the groundwork for a major life change. She was attending cosmetology school at night, learning how to style hair, all the while dreaming of opening up her own independent Web design firm. “I almost feel like I’m a freelancer, which is the job I’ve always wanted to have,” she said. “If I have 10 projects that I have due on Friday, if I wanted to I could work until midnight on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and get it done so I have Thursday and Friday off. I could set my own hours, which is what I could do if I was my own boss.”

However, Petersen said the rubric of a 40-hour work week still exists at Best Buy, if not in name then in practice. But those 40 hours don’t have to fall between 9 and 5. People do keep track of their time, mainly to make sure that they’re not working more than for what they are paid. The people who have the most trouble adjusting to ROWE were, not surprisingly, supervisors, said Petersen and Wells.

“The hardest thing for managers is to change from monitoring the hallways to managing the work output,” Thompson said.

Wells said the supervisors were the ones “pushing back” when the program began. He recalled some of them not being entirely enthusiastic, but “the good ones would set an example for their team by going to a movie on a Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

In the two years since, Wells said his relationship with his supervisors has shown no ill effects.

“It really puts the onus on them to give me solid expectations and deadlines,” Wells said.

Measuring Results

Both Petersen and Wells report morale to be as high as ever at Best Buy, one of the immediate effects of ROWE.

Ressler and Thompson believe it’s easy to measure the effectiveness of ROWE in more qualitative terms as well. Voluntary turnover rates on teams that follow ROWE at Best Buy,they report, have plummeted, as much as 90 percent in some divisions. Productivity has climbed an average of 35 percent.

“In any company, if people are doing work, there should be some way to measure that. Cali talked about how people look at work right now as pieces of time,” Thompson said. “Work shouldn’t be about pieces of time, work should be about creating an outcome that is measurable, whether that is customer satisfaction or number of sales. You measure whatever you’re hired to do and whatever you’re supposed to do.”

Ressler and Thompson say that Best Buy plans to roll out ROWE in its retail operation, a challenge to be sure.

“It’s unusual in an environment where you wouldn’t expect the workers to be prepared to manage those decisions,” Northcraft said. He noted that autonomy can be great for employees if they are ready for it, but that it can require some training—both of the employees and their supervisors.

Although they realize there are significant obstacles, Ressler and Thompson remain determined to plant the seeds of change at workplaces everywhere. In March they began marketing a ROWE start-up kit on their website.

“Whoever has the passion or energy to change their organization, can do that through one of these launch kits,” Thompson said.

Northcraft believes that they may have an impact, but one perhaps not as big as Thompson and Ressler may hope.

“Organizations will look at this and they will take a piece of it,” he said. “An organization might look at this and say, ‘We’re not going to turn people loose completely, but maybe on the margins there’s a way we can give people a little more freedom.’”

As for Petersen, she has no plans to take up cutting hair. In addition to allowing her to have a unique childcare arrangement, she believes that ROWE has had another effect on her life, one that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

“I can do laundry and answer emails at the same time,” she said. “It saves me a lot of sleepless nights.”


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