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Results-Only Workplace Environment: A Whacky Idea or a Smart Management Approach?

May 5, 2010

Updated July 20, 2014

We hear CEOs justify their exorbitant salaries by arguing that they’re paid for achieving results. Okay, but should not that same concept be applied to regular employees? Too often the comment is made that repressive organizational bureaucracies, replete with multilayer hierarchies, invite employees to park their brains at the door. The consequence is smothered creativity, stifled innovation, weak productivity, crappy customer and client service, and a host of other problems such as high turnover, poor morale and excessive absenteeism.

I’ve been a long-time proponent of focusing on results and less on bums-in-chairs. Of course, as a new manager some 25 years ago I had to deal with my own insecurities and fall on my face a number of times before I started to see the light. But after that awakening it was a whole new universe of exciting work with motivated staff.

What I don’t get is experienced managers, who incorrectly refer to themselves as leaders, who take pride in keeping their staff under their oppressive thumbs, serving upwards–backsides towards their alleged followers–climbing towards that next promotion, the holy grail of what it means to be “an up-and-comer.” Indeed.

A while ago I listened to a CBC radio interview with Jody Thompson, who with Cali Ressler co-created Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) where the focus is on measurable results, instead of what they call “presenteeism,” or what I call bums-in-chairs. Regardless of what you call it, the point is that a huge amount non-productive behavior is manifested in an organization. A few years ago, BusinessWeek ran an article that looked at Best Buy’s efforts to loosen up the traditional rigid corporate rules Smashing the Clock,which served as a spark for Thompson’s and Ressler’s work.

Since then, however, Best Buy’s CEO abandoned its ROWE initiative because of the operational problems it caused. And around the same time Best Buy began closing its stores in the U.S. as the ongoing evolution in consumer buying preferences devastated the company.

Thompson’s message was about management moving away from command and control and enabling employees to come up with their own solutions. The CBC interviewer asked one pointed question on how do employees who manage personal information maintain security when they take work home with them. Ressler’s reply was about trust.

When asked by the interviewer if there are situations where ROWE would not work, Thompson replied no. Regardless of the type of work you do, employees should be able to have flexibility in their work, whether they work in a nursing home or in a zoo. This approach introduces a new level of accountability and why workers are really at work.

As much as I’m a believer in people being accountable for their work and being given flexibility in how they accomplish their results, I just can’t get my head around Thompson’s argument that any type of job is ROWE-friendly.

One of my daughters is a nurse and her husband is a paramedics. They work defined shifts and frequently must sometimes overtime when they’re in the middle of an emergency. Somehow I don’t think that saying to the patient, “Sit tight for a bit since I’m going to take a break at Dairy Queen” would go over particularly well. How about the police officer responding to an armed robbery or a firefighter in the middle of putting out a fire. “Anyone up for a round of golf?” Don’t think so.

One of the other guests on the CBC interview was a professor specializing in labor issues at Simon Fraser University. He advocated some caution with the introduction of ROWE. He argued that the work day is broken because it’s getting longer; ROWE doesn’t address that. Also, when you work for someone else you’re always in a situation of conflict– a zero sum game. Employers are always trying to find ways to make workers more productive. He finally noted that ROWE doesn’t address how much people should be paid, and a huge issue for North American workers is the lack of receiving pay increases for many years.

ROWE, as a concept, is intriguing and worthy of being applied in workplaces where it is appropriate. It’s not, however, a panacea for the many inter-connected issues plaguing the workplace. Rather than painting it as a comprehensive solution, it should be positioned as one tool among many that can not only improve worker morale and job satisfaction but more importantly performance and outcomes. In short, the proponents of ROWE are well intended but also naïve when one considers the enormous complexity of the occupational field.

Share your comments and ideas on ROWE and how you would improve your workplace.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2010 3:46 pm

    Some interesting and good points, Will. Thanks.

  2. June 8, 2010 3:27 pm

    If “Results Only” were how employees were rewarded then perhaps the paramedic, fireman or teacher would choose to attend to their tasks with with an appropriate degree of urgency or timeliness.

    As long as all employees involved understood their contribution to, and impact on “Results” then maybe the theory could hold?

    Also key to this I suppose would be the definitions, measures, systems and processes used to track “Results”.

  3. May 6, 2010 3:01 pm

    ROWE sounds good to me. I’m self-employed. My clients expect performance, plain and simple. If I don’t provide the results they want, I’m out. I would think that performance-based workplaces have a more motivated and productive workforce.

    • May 6, 2010 3:46 pm

      For self-employed people it works well. Within bureaucratic hierarchies it would take substantial management effort and leadership to create the necessary environment and to ensure that everyone pulls their weight towards the common purpose. Abusers of a ROWE approach would create tension and morale problems, which would have to be quickly addressed.

      Thanks for your comment, Susan.

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