Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson
The way most people work – with defined work hours and a defined location – was developed to support an industrialisation of work. In a time when it made sense for a company to centralise their workforce. That time has passed, but the habits of that workplace have persisted; most of us work 9 to 5, in an office, surrounded by colleagues on similar schedules. We have the technology and the communication tools to work differently but it rarely happens. When I read Scott Berkun’s book “The Year Without Pants” I really struggled to imagine how that freedom of work would apply in a large traditionally bureaucratic company, “Why Work Sucks” starts to answer that question.
The big challenge to traditional thinking about work is the myth of time. In my last job I was on a forty hour contract, but that time quota is irrelevant. What matters is whether I got the job done – it’s time to focus on results.
In the words of Ressler and Thompson “In a results-only work environment people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done”.
Reading the examples in the book I did find myself mentally resisting the concept of a results-only work environment (ROWE). I kept thinking “but we need people in place for tasks” (I had in mind the publication of quarterly figures), then I realised that the final clause of the statement covers that. If there are tasks where people really do need to all be in one place then that is what will happen – if you have the right team and the right leadership in place the team will organise around the work. In fact this is exactly what had happened in my old team; they knew very well what they needed to do and sorted out their availability together.
And if you don’t have the right team in place? ROWE seems to uncover the non-performers; if you’re managing on results rather than time those with lower results become very visible, very quickly.
Ressler and Thompson are now consultants working with companies to introduce this concept, having made a success of it at Best Buy. But Best Buy famously killed ROWE last year saying they needed “all hands on deck” and employees in the office as much as possible to “collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business”. In the discussion around the decision the CEO expressed a view that ROWE only worked with a delegation style of leadership, I don’t think this is true, but it does point to one of the big challenges of ROWE; management.
If a manager only has to manage on the basis of where everybody is for the forty hours of their contract plus an annual look at progress (which is true in many large companies) then the job is pretty easy. But if you’re working in a ROWE as a manager then you must know the content of the roles in your team, and the abilities of the team to assess progress on a daily or weekly basis. You must be able to set direction and you must be able to hold people accountable much more regularly than under traditional systems.
Under ROWE a lot of HR’s role disappears, if people can work whenever they want (as along as the work gets done) there’s no need for holiday leave or sick leave policies. If the results are being assessed constantly that whole annual performance assessment process can also disappear. In fact a lot of processes are put back in the hands of team managers.
And back to that leadership question; I think ROWE can work well for a variety of leadership styles; democratic, affiliative, coaching or pace-setting leaders should find it easy to adapt. An authoritative leader may find it harder, as they lose some control of how things are done. A coercive leader will probably fail in a ROWE, but since this style is best used in times of crisis it should be a rare style in a functioning company.
I think there are some contexts when a pure ROWE won’t improve overall performance – anything that has a high personal service or very high urgency probably won’t work well. But that’s a relatively small proportion of work done today, so why are so many of us working in sucky environments?
The book is a good read, interspersed with some good examples from people working in a ROWE. As a manager I tried to focus on results and give my team as much freedom as possible to organise their work, but I still found I had a lot to learn about my attitude to time as I read this book. I missed any real discussion on the changing role for managers, although to be fair that may be in the follow up book “Why Managing Sucks”. I also found it a tad too optimistic – there was little examination of when it might not work or what might need to change across the company to make ROWE work. I still closed the book wishing I’d read it much earlier in my managing career.