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ROWE your way into chaos

June 12, 2008

“Hi. You’ve reached no one. I can’t take your call right now, I’m _________ (fill in the blank: watching a movie, taking my son to baseball, doing groceries, sleeping in, having my legs waxed etc.) I’m not sure when I’ll be in again, but please leave a brief message and I’ll get back to you when I feel like working. Thanks.”

Imagine that was your boss or your co-worker’s voice mail message. Worse yet, imagine you were a customer and this is the message you heard from a potential vendor. Personally, the thought of hearing a message like that makes my skin crawl with frustration.

You might be thinking, “Come on, you’re exaggerating.” Well folks, assuming this company has adopted a results-only work environment (ROWE) created by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson – this isn’t such a stretch from what you could be hearing. It may not be quite so blunt, but that’s what you’d be reading between the lines.

Ressler and Thompson, two HR professionals came up with ROWE in order to improve the work environment. Their philosophy isn’t just about making workers happy, but allowing people to work when they want to – and they say this is good for business too. The whole idea is to focus on the work, not the time. So, if you can get what needs to get done at midnight, and it takes you only two hours, then why not work when it’s convenient for you?

In a recent article published by the Globe and Mail, Ressler and Thompson suggest that ROWE elevates everybody’s ability to give their best to a company and still have the life they want. In fact, they’ve brought this concept to Best Buy where they’ve been able to lower voluntary turnover (ie. people who quit) and increase involuntary turnover (ie. people who get fired.)

We at The Tatham Group find several flaws in this approach.

First, the most fundamental problem with encouraging complete independence is basically dismantling the most optimal performance factors in a company: a high performance team. High performance teams require the kind of synergy that email, phone and video conference call just can’t achieve. There is no amount of conference calling that can replace five people working on the same project, being in the same work space and making crucial decisions right then and there, together.

Second, one of the biggest problems we find with companies who are unable to execute strategy and get their processes right is that they operate in silos. “Silos” – in HR speak is another way of saying divisions. In other words, you may work extremely well within your own division, but when it comes to connecting the dots from one end of the company to another, the product or service gets bogged down in bureaucracy. In removing all structure (ie. having generally set – or predictable work hours, and mandatory communication if there should be a change) then you are in effect creating thousands of little silos. Each person works well individually, but with each person working within their bubble it’s very difficult to create a high performing team. For instance, if I’m working one day from 5-10 pm at the office, but my colleague is working on the same project from 9-2, and we can’t communicate with one another about it (or there is a great delay) the customer suffers. They end up having to pay for the time it takes for us to make a decision.

Third, there is a huge difference between flextime and flexibility. We agree with Ressler and Thompson that flextime can create a huge amount of inequality and frustration among group members. Why should the guy down the hall be able to telecommute, but I can’t? However flexibility is different. It means that if someone wants to come in from 10 am – 6 pm to get their work done, but the guy down the hall prefers working from 7 am – 3 pm, because he’s got to take his little guy to soccer practice, then that should be entirely acceptable. Or, if I want to work from home one day a week, and all my colleagues have been informed of it, then that too should be ok. Sometimes, I just need to go to a Starbucks and write in a different environment. As long as I let my team know, and there isn’t a big meeting scheduled, that’s ok too. Again, that’s flexibility with structure, not necessarily flextime.

In our view, you can still achieve empowered, passionate, committed and innovative employees with some structure and some flexibility. If you take the quiz offered in the Globe’s article, we believe that the best kind of work environment is actually getting “Mostly B’s: where as an employee you have programs available such as job sharing, telecommuting, flextime, etc.” Anything more, and you’ve got chaos.

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  • scotchcart

    I think there are two critical issues.

    The first is designing organizations for redundancy. You have two officers leading an active unit in case one gets shot. You wouldn’t have a one-one in business. In a creative company you can allow for a hit rate of 1/200 ideas being market hits. You budget for 199 dud ideas.

    The second is whether ideas come from bottom-up or top-down – and which ideas.

    An organization needs to be clear on both.

    I am thinking of hiring a person to be my ‘double’ so I can go out of the office to do other things. This is not going to work though, is it? I need to find someone with a skill set I respect and then to craft the job and our relationship as much about them as about me and my goals.

    Of course when someone is very very young, it doesn’t feel like that. But there is also a rule of thumb not to try to supervise someone more than one step down. The gap is just too big to communicate effectively.

    I read ROWE as just a response to the extreme dysfunction that has developed in organizations. When you work in organizations where people are presumed responsible, you quickly understand their habits and how to reach them. And you adjust your own habits to your project. I’ve gone into work at 10 am because clients rarely called before then. And I stayed till 10pm to make sure emails were returned promptly. I made sure everything was ready for the week on Sundays and did personal tasks on Fridays.

    Try ROWE – you will be surprised. I’ve even had employees refuse to be paid when they were ill. I’ve had to insist – does that sound crazy? We settled on 50%. They owned their job so much that they refused to be paid. People like being responsible. They love it actually.

    PS I’m from flowingmotion and came looking for the post on Gary Hamel?