What’s a ROWE? Understanding the Results-Only Work Environment


The biggest workplace revolution since the cubicle might someday make those stuffy little offices obsolete. It’s a whole new way to look at work. Picture this…what if…work weren’t a place that you GO…but it was a thing that you DO.

That’s the idea behind the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)—a concept originally conceived at Best Buy that has spread to organizations across many industries.

It sounds so simple, but it can be a very tricky concept for some of us to wrap our heads around, especially for those that have been in a traditional workplace for a long time.

Think about it. We talk about “burning the midnight oil.” We notice which cars are always in the parking lot at the end of the day. We listen to self-proclaimed go-getters brag about their 80-hour workweeks.

But here’s the thing. Just because someone works 80 hours a week or hits the office every day at 6 a.m. sharp, doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing anything. In fact, it might be a sign that they aren’t accomplishing as much as they could or should. Some people always seem to go out of their way to talk about how many hours they work or how late they were stuck at the office. If that person was truly being productive, would they really feel a need to tell everyone how many hours they worked? Wouldn’t the work speak for itself? The number of hours someone’s butt is in the seat doesn’t determine that person’s value. What if he is playing computer games, checking fantasy football scores, and booking personal travel? The proof should be in the pudding.

What Best Buy did at their corporate headquarters was simple. In essence, they decided that they didn’t care where, when, or how their office employees accomplished their work. All that mattered were results.

That’s kind of hard to argue with. If the work is getting done and getting done well, what difference does it make if the employee was physically seated in the office from nine-to-five or if they were working on their laptop in their living room in the middle of the night?

Empowering employees to think about work in this way can have some really exciting benefits:

They get more done. Best Buy’s research, as well as that of other companies that have gone in the direction of ROWE, points out some exciting results. By allowing employees to focus on results, not the process, not only did they continue to get their work done, they actually began to produce MORE! What manager could argue with that?

They waste less time. One of the most common questions that managers ask when they start considering a ROWE-like policy is, “How do we know that they’re working?” Guess what. They don’t know. And they never did. Sure, a manager can walk around and see Employees buzzing around or planted obediently at their desks, but unless the nature of the work is extremely measurable, it is very hard to know how productive someone is actually being at a given moment.

Like it or not, employees get a certain amount of credit just for showing up. ROWE eliminates that and just evaluates your value and contribution—extremely motivating to those who actually work and don’t play attendance games. Employees in a results-only environment don’t waste time because they have no incentive to waste time. What’s the point of sitting at your house and acting busy if you could just get your work done and go enjoy some fresh air?

They are happier. Work-life balance is so important today. Imagine how convenient it would be if running the kids to the doctor or going to the bank became activities that you could do during the day without having to justify your absence to anyone? In a results-only environment, you fit your work around your life, not the other way around. And doesn’t that just sound like the way it should be? And, by the way, happy employees are healthier employees, which is a good thing all around.

They are more loyal. Employees who are trusted to do their work and manage their lives like adults are not likely to want to work anywhere else. Where else could you get that type of arrangement? Some organizations with positions once plagued with high turnover see that problem virtually disappear once they change the way people in those roles approach their work.

They are less expensive. As much as I wish all of the benefits listed above were enough to sell mangers on the value of ROWE, this is the one that usually gets them to uncross their arms and start really thinking about the possibilities.

Results-oriented Employees:
• Take up less space, because they spend less time in the office;
• Use less sick time, because they can be sick now, work later, and not call off;
• Use less vacation time, because they can plan ahead and get their work done sooner; and
• Are more likely to stay with the company, meaning the company has to train fewer new hires.

That should make all of those managers obsessed with the bottom line pretty happy!

So what does this mean for you?

Maybe this sounds like something that could be easily implemented at your office or maybe it sounds like something that’s completely incompatible with how your company does business. Realistically, some jobs are simply more conducive, logistically, to things like telecommuting and working at odd hours.

The challenge is to find practical ways to implement the ROWE philosophy in a way that makes good business sense for you. Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out exactly how to do that to get a lot of value out of the concept.

Even if ROWE seems incompatible with your usual workday—because you need to be available to answer phones during specific hours, or because you need specialized equipment at the office, or for any other reason—you can still gain a lot by beginning to think about work differently.

Like so much in the world of productivity, at the end of the day, it’s all about setting expectations. If your team or your boss has a very clear understanding of what they can expect from you, they’ll be a lot less inclined to worry about how—or when—you go about doing it.

On the other hand, when objectives are unclear, others are much more likely to judge you based on what they can see. All too often, this translates into the dreaded (and counterproductive) “butt in chair time.”

Bottom line: as a leader, how can you:

1. Set goals and priorities for your folks, so they knew exactly what they should be working on,
2. Determine what results they are expected to achieve,
3. Decide how the results will be measured, so they clearly know if they have succeeded or failed, and
4. Tie in performance rewards to those results.

If you don’t know the answers to the four items for each of your employees, you have some work to do as a manager. As an employee, you can determine these things for yourself and then initiate this conversation with your manager to make sure you’re on the right track. At the end of the performance period, you’ll be able to prove your value.

Even if an organization doesn’t implement a format ROWE, asking managers and employees to think this way will get you well on your way to a more productive workforce.

Make it a productive day! (TM)

(C) Copyright 2008 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.