ROWE Rollout Successes and Challenges

Now that Hennepin County, Minn.'s health department is now fully implementing ROWE principles, their manager aiming to be more inclusive and efficient.

As Minnesota legislators faced off over a government shutdown in the capital, Hennepin County's Human Services and Public Health Department (HSPHD) finished rolling out its Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) program, which emphasizes measurable results regardless of where or when work is being done. Employees can work with their teams to choose who can work from home, from a coffee shop, on vacation, or in the office, and on what days -- as long as employees are achieving results.

When I last spoke with Deb Truesdell, HSPHD's ROWE and telework manager, about half of the department's 2,700 employees had completed ROWE training. As of June, every employee is now practicing ROWE. That doesn't mean the program has been without its own challenges. Truesdell shares where ROWE is now, big surprises and what she'd do differently in this edited transcript.

What is the status of the ROWE program today?

What we have been focusing on now is a department-wide project called ROWE Results. Many folks already have results [productivity goals] in place, but it has been difficult to figure out exactly where we are as a department. So, two management teams are responsible for revisiting teams and units to learn from their successes and struggles and find out if there is any extra help that they need. We're looking at team agreements and how each person conducts their daily business because we want to understand how they're responding to this environment overall.

We also created "ROWE champions." As we went through the migrations and trainings, we needed subject matter experts who were willing to step forward and learn more from us [about ROWE standards] so they could help their team. We asked those interested in becoming ROWE champions to fill out a questionnaire and tell us why they wanted to do this in addition to their other responsibilities. We got a tremendous outpouring of interest from our staff. We chose about 24 who we felt were best fits and who were spread out across the organization. When people have questions or concerns, they know they can go to a champion who has more knowledge.

We also just signed a working partnership agreement with the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs to help us evaluate bottom-line savings, turnover, retention, and cost savings on things like space and mileage.

Have budget issues at the state level had any impact on the program?

The budget has not had an adverse impact on ROWE. Our department has made a commitment to ROWE and we continue to move forward. Working in a Results-Only Work Environment makes a lot of sense in this economic climate because it focuses attention on the work necessary to meet critical results... Does it require work? Yes. Does it require resources? Yes. But it is well worth all of that.

What evidence do you have that this program is working?

We are seeing some numbers that are really positive. In our eligibility area, people are waiting less for their cases to be processed, and I would say there's a higher level of client service. I know there's been an increase in productivity. Now, work is about what's best for the organization and what's best for client services.

We also have a lot of information on how much of a difference ROWE has made in employees' lives. Gas prices are high, but you can save a lot of money by carefully planning when you are going to be downtown at the office. Some employees have responsibilities for children or other family members. ROWE can save you a lot of angst.

Were there unexpected results of the program?

One of the goals of ROWE was to be in a position to attract the best employees. Let's face it: The dollars aren't there. So every time a posting goes up, it mentions that we [practice] ROWE and it describes what that means.

Our support and collections division hired four people. Two came from different local counties, from child support positions, so they needed no training. Look at the cost savings in that. All we had to do was get them access to the computer, and they could hit the ground running. One new hire took a pay cut to come to Hennepin County to work in ROWE.

One supervisor said the supervisors in the other counties were getting mad at him because we just hired five people. All of them either mentioned ROWE in their application or during the interview. Three came from other counties. For this position, they do the applications for public assistance and the first three months are spent in training at the state. We just hired three people that we don't have to send to state training. They can start doing work right now.

We saved a tremendous amount of time, dollars and client service. We certainly knew that we would be able to attract good candidates. We didn't know we'd be stealing them already trained.

What challenges are you still working to overcome?

We are still having growing pains. If you think about it, the first folks that began working in ROWE started two years ago. Now we have people just starting it. That has been difficult in itself.

Also, we are finding that many of our supervisors felt like they no longer understood what their role was. In the old environment, they knew what their responsibilities were -- command and control, making sure work got done, that people were at their desks, telling people what to do. ROWE changes that. Our supervisors have adapted really well, but some are really struggling. We do a lot of work with teams and their supervisors around those kinds of dynamics. We're also holding manager/supervisor meetings to find out what kind of support they need.

There continues to be some resistance among line staff, generally speaking. We have learned that it's either fear based or it is the fact that they don't have an understanding of what the environment is. There is a lot of focus on working anywhere they want, or they have great pride in their work and don't want to see their clients suffer. It's more of a misunderstanding. It's a results thing, not a remote thing.

One positive thing is we have such a great working relationship with our unions, and that continues to be positive and helpful toward switching our environment. The union has not created a banner that says they're behind us, but they have done everything but that. In many editions of their newsletter, they write positive articles about ROWE. I've gone to meetings to talk about it. It's not an adversarial relationship ever.

If you had to go back and do it all over again, what would you change?

If I were lucky enough to go back, I would have made sure we had better things in place to support our leadership. As you give individuals freedom, sometimes they want to run away and they have to be pulled back in. And sometimes, they don't want to leave their corral. They're comfortable, and they need coaching and assistance to take that step out. When you're talking about that range, the leader is put in a pretty tough situation. We've always been rewarded for command and control, so we chose leaders because they were very good at that. And now we're asking them to do something completely different, and that is hard. We could have done a better job, and we want to fix that.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.