Back in 2003, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson were working in human resources at Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield, Minn., when they were asked to come up with a flexible work program that would energize the workforce at corporate and make them more productive. But they had a problem, one that’s common with practices like flextime. It wasn’t what people wanted, and it came with a lot of problems and challenges.
So Ressler and Thompson shifted gears. They set out to find what would make the corporate workforce more engaged and excited. After talking to people at the company, they realized that today’s workforce didn’t care about flexible hours. “The reason people have a job is they’re getting paid to produce results,” Thompson says. The hours they work -- flexible or not -- don’t matter as much as the results.
What the pair developed became known as the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), which focuses on giving workers the leeway and headway to do the work that meets the critical needs of an organization and its clients rather than on when or where the work is taking place. Under ROWE, Thompson says, employees “actually get to act like an adult and live their lives in a way where they can do what they need to do every day in the best way possible.”
While ROWE has taken off in the private sector -- cutting down on turnover and increasing productivity -- governments have been slow to come on board. A few have tried or are trying it out. But based on results in the private sector, ROWE’s managerial approach has the potential to cut workforce costs and boost morale for state, local and federal employers and employees. At a time of major budget cuts, that might be hard for policymakers to ignore.
What ROWE does is make an organization more employee driven than management driven. A manager isn’t in charge of assigning goals and making sure employees show up every day at 8 a.m. Instead, the manager is there to help a team develop results, track those results and clear barriers to performance. Each ROWE team is expected to work together to develop an agreement that lays out what results each employee in the group is expected to accomplish and what days or times each person will be in the office -- agreements are flexible and can change as employees or caseloads change.
A key point in the ROWE approach is that the “R” doesn’t necessarily stand for remote. Not everyone in an organization has a position that is suited to working from home. No one is forced to work at home either. If employees prefer working in an office setting, they can continue doing that. But that doesn’t mean every job can’t have some form of flexibility.
In developing and implementing ROWE at Best Buy, Ressler and Thompson believed the program would not only increase productivity within the organization, but would also improve morale and reduce turnover at headquarters. So far, they’ve been right. Studies conducted by the University of Minnesota found that turnover fell by 45 percent and employees reported getting extra sleep and being more likely to see a doctor when necessary. This helped reduce the strain work placed on their families, thus decreasing emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.
While several private companies have incorporated ROWE into their management plans, governments have taken a more calculated, cautious approach. In 2010, Bryan Sivak, Washington, D.C.’s then-chief technology officer, started to implement ROWE within his office of 550 employees, only to see the program halted by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Fenty was nearing the end of his term and wanted his successor to be able to review the program before determining whether it would move forward. So far, it hasn’t been revived.
Also in 2010, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) developed a ROWE pilot for 400 employees -- the first attempt to implement the program at the federal level. The initial results were positive enough for OPM to extend the program through fiscal 2011. Employees reported increased job satisfaction, a cultural shift in behavior toward results, more proactive leadership and clearer agency priorities. OPM is currently in the process of reviewing the results and impact of the ROWE trial.
One local agency, however, has had clear success with ROWE. The Human Services and Public Health Department (HSPHD) in Hennepin County, Minn., began transitioning employees to ROWE in 2009. With the support of the county administrator, the department won a grant from the state Department of Transportation aimed at reducing traffic congestion in high-volume corridors. The HSPHD had already been trying to boost the number of department teleworkers from 300 to half of HSPHD’s 2,700 employees. The idea was to get staff more comfortable working from a variety of locations in order to deliver client services more efficiently within neighborhoods rather than solely from its downtown offices.
Once HSPHD received the state grant, it contracted with CultureRx, the company created by Ressler and Thompson, to work toward ROWE. The program was slowly phased in across the department, with the final round of ROWE training wrapping up last July. As each wave of transitions occurred, teams were asked to sit down with their managers and figure out what their higher purpose was. For example, in the case of child placement, an employee’s purpose is not to process as many cases as fast as possible, but to ensure that a child has a safe home to sleep in at night. From this, the team determines what steps can help achieve that result. Once that’s established, they can begin to look at how many people need to be in the office on a daily basis, who prefers to work in the office and what hours are most critical for face-to-face client meetings. This enables the team to set up a schedule that makes the most efficient use of everyone’s time. Managers track results regularly and provide guidance to employees when necessary.
It might seem as if employees would jump at the chance to put in their hours at home, work alternate schedules or even be free from an environment that values clocking in at 8 a.m. more than anything else. But it wasn’t that simple. According to Deb Truesdell, HSPHD’s ROWE manager, some employees expressed fear about what they would be expected to do in the new environment -- whether it would mean more work -- and how they would maintain relationships with clients and colleagues. The culture shift was slow. “Not everyone thinks this is a great idea,” says Truesdell. “It’s rocking the boat. Sometimes people don’t understand that just because they have to focus on results, it doesn’t mean the world has to change.”
Helping employees grasp this concept is one of the main challenges, and there is still some resistance. It has also been difficult helping managers adjust to ROWE. “We have always been a command and control organization,” Truesdell says. “In ROWE, that doesn’t exist.” Instead, managers need to be clear about outcomes, trust their employees, monitor results and coach employees when necessary. That can be freeing. “I bring value to the department as an employee and I love to do this work,” says Jean Diederich, a child support officer and president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 34. “So get the heck out of my way and let me do my work. Don’t be a barrier, be a supporter. Be with me, not in front of me or behind me.”
But managers don’t necessarily see things that way. As ROWE rolled out, Truesdell realized that some managers no longer understood what their role was. Previously they made sure employees were at their desks and told people what to do. Not with ROWE. “There really is that concern about whether or not people are doing their work,” says Debra Bean, an area manager within HSPHD. So Truesdell and her team have collaborated with managers to find out what kind of support they need in order to make ROWE work. “What it really demands of us is that we stay maybe more on top of our employees and the results,” Bean says. “In this environment, you’re agreeing you’re going to be more proactive and interactive with your employees.”
CultureRx’s Thompson found that once managers adapt to this new way of thinking, they find themselves actually doing what they had always wanted to do in a management position: develop their people and get roadblocks out of the way. Truesdell cautions that it is vitally important to bring managers and leadership on board during the beginning phases of ROWE so they understand why, how and what it will mean not only for them, but for the organization as a whole.
The department has also worked closely with the unions during ROWE's implementation. This included ensuring that employees met both their new results and the number of hours they were contractually bound to work. Luckily for HSPHD, a good working relationship with the labor unions helped keep the program on track. The unions have been supportive of it, and HSPHD has been willing to keep the unions in the loop throughout the transition to monitor any systemic issues that get in the way. The agency even invited a chief union steward to be part of ROWE planning and implementation.
Since implementing ROWE back in 2009, HSPHD has benefited in several ways, including increased productivity; reduced sick leave; a reduction in mileage, parking and office space costs; and a higher level of client services. Citizens, for example, are waiting less time to have their cases processed and employee morale is up. Those with responsibility for children or other family members report that they have been able to balance what they need to get done at work and at home better than before. Employees even say that by carefully planning what hours to be in the office, they’ve been able to reduce the financial impact of rising gas prices.
One of the other advantages of ROWE has been the ability to attract the best employees. Those that do come to HSPHD mention being attracted by ROWE. Many come from other government child support positions, meaning that they can hit the ground running and save HSPHD time and money in training. “We certainly knew that we would be able to attract good candidates,” Truesdell says. “We didn’t know we’d be stealing them already trained.”
It’s still too early to say whether ROWE will be the next big thing in government, or whether it’s just another performance management fad that will fade in time. Public perception will remain an obstacle to implementation -- taxpayers don’t like to see government employees in the supermarket at 10 a.m. -- as will overcoming a command-and-control mindset. But, says Truesdell, “I don’t think ROWE is going away. If people are benefiting, you’d have to come up with a good reason to not want to work in this way.”