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Is ROWE The Future Of Work? Or An Unworkable Fantasy?

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On day one of his company’s grand work experiment, Kyle Pederson found himself more or less alone. Of the 15 full-time employees at Learner’s Edge, a continuing education firm in Minneapolis, only three arrived at the office that first day. And the next day. And the day after that.

“For almost a month, everyone cleared out,” Pederson said of time spent rattling around an empty, silent space. “It was just me, my co-founder and our executive director all wondering, ‘What on earth have we done?’”

What they’d done was adopt a new way of working -- one that either symbolizes the future of work in the U.S. or demonstrates the limits of workplace flexibility, depending on who you ask. Specifically, what they’d done was adopt the same program that was recently canceled at Best Buy, but which is being embraced at dozens of other companies around the country.

Called ROWE (which stands for Results Only Work Environment) it is an attempt to test the limits of workplace flexibility, and, in the process, redefine them. What’s clear is that the way Americans work is overdue for a change: gone are the days of pink “While You Were Out” slips, nine-to-five schedules, telephones anchored to desks, and secretaries to type letters for bosses who didn’t know their way around a keyboard. Less clear, however, is what we want to change the system to. What is the purpose of an office when so much of modern work can be done from just about anywhere? In a 24/7 economy, how much work is enough work? To whom does your time belong when you are getting a paycheck? How do you manage employees when you can’t actually see them?

Lost in the conversation after the Best Buy cancellation is the fact that ROWE is much more than just permission to work from home once in a while. It is a comprehensive re-evaluation of the goals and methods of work. Created by former Best Buy employees Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, and, at its peak, being used by 80 percent of the company’s 3000 corporate employees, ROWE’s slogan is “Work whenever you want, wherever you want, as long as the work gets done.”

That last clause is important. Want to spend the workday at home in your pajamas? Fine, as long as you can meet your sales quotas while you are there. Want to move to a cabin in Montana and attend meetings at LA headquarters via teleconference? Great, as long as your reports are in on time and your clients are happy. Work best if you arrive at your desk at midnight and leave at dawn? No problem, as long as the work gets done.

ROWE is based on the belief that managers need to stop measuring an employee’s work by whether they show up to do it, and start focusing instead on creating clear job descriptions, attainable goals and better methods of measurement -- and then letting workers get down to work. Yes, this means that some people will still have to be in a specific place at a certain time -- if that is the way to get the job done. And they will still have to come to meetings -- IF that meeting is required to get the job done. But what most managers learn when they adopt this new approach is that far more meetings are unnecessary and far more jobs can be done remotely than they ever would have guessed.

“I’d thought I was a pretty hands-off manager,” says Veronica Wooten, president and COO of Kansas-based Suntell, whose 17 employees provide risk management software to the banking industry. “But then we made the transition, and started letting go and letting people make their own decisions, I realized I was a lot more controlling than I perceived myself to be.”

Wooten's "micromanaging," she concluded, kept workers from being as productive as they could be when they set the pace themselves. In the nearly three years since she adopted ROWE, she says, “Our employee count has decreased 20 percent, and our customer base increased 20 percent.” In addition, there are 50 percent fewer meetings, as employees were given the right to vote with their feet and not come to those that they didn’t consider necessary. Her expenses decreased 12 percent, and she used that to give everyone a raise. She expects to move to a smaller office when her current lease expires, because only three of her staff “choose to use the office to meet results. Everyone else chooses to work elsewhere.” Where does she work? At home two days a week. “My only reason for being in the office, I realized, was to keep an eye on people,” she says, “and I don’t need to do that anymore.”

Pederson too, saw an increase in productivity, and also a new awareness among workers of how each of them work best. After about a month of “relishing newfound freedom," he says, some staff found they missed the structure of an office, and began to return. Others, who missed the camaraderie and connection of “face-time,” but not the desks and the clock, began to find that in new ways -- gathering at Starbucks near their homes, or inviting each other for social dinners, just to keep in touch. (Pederson still comes to the office, he says, because he discovered he is too distracted by his toddler to work from home.)

Changing everything is both simple (Wooten says the team had a "fast-track training session" with Jody Thompson and read the book Why Work Sucks, And How To Fix It, before getting started "right away") and very complicated. Reams of laws and regulations are based on a 9-to-5, in-the-office model. When switching to ROWE, everything from comp time and vacation days (both lose their meaning when you work as much or as little as you need to) and hourly wages (how do you pay someone by the hour if you are not counting their hours) have to be rejiggered. Companies tend to address the first by making the change at the start of a new year and asking employees to use up their remaining time before ROWE starts, and the second by paying everyone, including hourly workers, a 40-hour-a-week rate and allowing them to file for overtime.

Managers who spoke with HuffPost said that what seems to be the biggest risk of the program -- that workers will take advantage of the new freedom -- has not been an issue at all. Leaders stressed that that Yahoo, where Marissa Mayer was reportedly moved to eliminate work-from-home arrangements in order to rein in employees who had all but stopped producing, never followed a ROWE model. Under ROWE, Thompson says, the employees who so troubled Mayer would have been ousted long ago. The problem was not too much freedom, she says, but rather poorly defined goals. “Employees aren’t kids off playing hookey, doing as they please. They are adults you trust to do a job right.”

Thompson and Ressler also argue that ROWE was not the reason Best Buy came upon hard times. While a large percentage of the corporate staff worked in a ROWE, they say, that group accounted for only two percent of the entire Best Buy company. “While we agree that Best Buy must take drastic measures to turn their business around, moving back to a 20th century, paternalistic 'command and control' environment is most certainly not the answer,” Ressler and Thompson wrote on their website in response to the company’s decision to cancel the flexibility plan.

Wooten agreed. "I think Best Buy has made a change that has nothing to do with where their problems really lie. I think that their decreased earnings and sales on the retail side have nothing to do with the ROWE on the corporate end," she says.

Wouldn’t it have been a statement, she mused, if either company had declared that they intended to shake up the culture, and, as a result, had decided to push the edges of flexibility, rather than contracting them?

Pederson wonders that as well.

“There are practical benefits,” he says. “Better work, higher productivity. But there are also philosophical reasons. It has always struck me as paternalistic at its core when management dictates how people work and where they work. This is a more respectful way to work.”

This story appears in Issue 45 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 19.

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