Public Workforce

ROWE Against the Tide

One Minnesota department is letting employees create their own work environment, as long as they achieve results.
by | January 13, 2010

Heather Kerrigan

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.

Last year, Hennepin County, Minnesota, began to transition Human Services and Public Health Department employees to a new style of working known as ROWE -- Results-Only Work Environment. HSPHD first implemented ROWE when the department received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to help reduce traffic congestion in certain areas of the state. Many employees were able to work from home, or work less conventional hours, thereby reducing traffic congestion and the county's cost for office space, and increasing productivity and worker satisfaction.

So far, 1,400 of the department's 2,700 employees have or are in the process of completing ROWE training, with a goal of training all employees by mid-2011. Deb Truesdell, HSPHD's ROWE and telework manager, answered questions about implementing ROWE in the edited transcript below. Next month, she will discuss whether her department is beginning to achieve its desired results.

How is ROWE different from a typical work environment?

ROWE is actually focused on the results a person gets -- not where they're working or what time they're working to get their results. As a county, we've always been focused on having results and standards, but this cuts right to the chase. Every person who is in ROWE works with their team and supervisor [to] determine what results need to be accomplished to meet their overall goals.

Employees were getting nervous about this. This was a different concept, which looks at the county's missions and goals, a specific department's goals [and] the goals of a specific team or unit. It helps employees feel that "Wow, what I do really does affect the area, the department." What we really hone in on here is what your main role is. We say, "let's identify five or seven things that are important for you to be able to meet those results." It's all about getting done what you need to get done that is purposeful. ... [M]aybe there are things we've been focusing time on, that are worthy, but aren't really important. We have identified some duplicate work.

People in ROWE are really clear on the results they need to meet. That's the foundation. People are measured on the results. That's all they're measured on -- not what they're wearing [or] whether they're first or last in the office. They're not measured on anything except the results. You can make your results without sitting in your cubicle, without working an 8-4:30 shift. We are a government agency and union [members]. We have to put in our 40 hours or whatever is in your contract each week. We have a responsibility to the public and standards laws. In our department, we're really advanced technology-wise. Many of the folks in our department have mobile devices. We're replacing all desktops with mobile devices. It doesn't matter when you work. It doesn't matter where you work. You need to be where you [need to be] to get the work done. But as long as you're putting your time in and meeting your results, that's what you do.

How has a migration from a typical government work environment to ROWE gone so far?

We have one team that went through the first migration, and they began working in ROWE in August. These folks were really into it; they happen to be in our eligibility support area. They do face-to-face interviews with people who are applying for public assistance or recertification. Anybody would think: This is a unit of 13 people and they see members of the public. They have to be in the office. But that's not true.

We had this unit of 13 people, and they all got together and determined that other than at certain times of the month when there is higher demand, they really only needed a minimum of five people to see face-to-face clients. They came up with a schedule: of those 13 people, two decided they really liked working in their cubes from 8-4:30. Their ROWE plan might be totally different than everybody else's. The others can work wherever, whenever they need to. They can elect to work at home, and most have decided to do so. The team came up with a rotation schedule that if one of the five in-office employees called in sick, the next on the rotation got a call and had to come into the office. It has worked really well. They've seen a significant decrease in the use of sick leave. When you wake up not feeling well, in ROWE you can still put your eight hours in from home -- unless you're one of the five needed in the office. The last time I checked ... they have only had people call in sick a total of four times.

In the beginning, people were mad that they didn't get picked [for ROWE training]; but we were bound by MNDOT because they wanted to cut traffic in certain corridors. We had to explain that to staff. Now I think people are like "When do I get to do it?" Not everyone thinks this is a great idea, but I think the people that are not supportive, some of it is a little bit of fear because it's rocking the boat. And sometimes people don't understand that just because they have to focus on results, it doesn't mean that the world has to change. I think once people understand that, there is a little sigh of relief. We have to remind people that it is results only, not remote only. It depends on the context of your job. If they don't want to work remotely, that's fine. You can meet your results in the office. That's your choice.

It's more difficult for managers and supervisors. The mindset of wanting people to be by you -- this is changing. Some managers and supervisors are really thinking this is great. Some are nervous and some probably aren't supportive. But it's because they don't know the program yet. They don't understand it yet. I think managers, overall, are supportive. This is a total change in culture about the way work has been -- the X and Y generations coming up aren't content coming to work here and working 8-4:30 sitting in a cube. You have to be an attractive employer and you have to be able to offer stuff. No one comes here for the money. They come to work because they want to make a difference. We had one individual who received a great job offer from a major employer. [That individual] decided to stay here because the company wasn't going to do ROWE.

Do you have a question for Truesdell regarding her department's implementation of ROWE? E-mail it to and it may be featured in next month's Public Workforce newsletter.


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