Results Only Work Environment? It’s a Leadership Problem

A reader recently asked me to comment on Best Buy’s latest management announcement. You see, Best Buy has joined Yahoo in ending work at home as an effort to improve performance. (Read Yahoo! Wrong Problem; Wrong Solution.) Both companies would benefit from treating work at home, even when the job will permit it, as a privilege, not a right.

Whether you work at home or not should be determined first by the job, since some jobs cannot be done at home. Retail store employees can hardly do their jobs at home. Given that the job can be done at home, the second consideration should be whether the employee has earned the privilege. If an employee is not performing well in the office, you can be sure that person will not perform well at home.

I suspect that is at the heart of the problem in both organizations. Employees were allowed to work at home but there was little consideration of the effectiveness of the person’s work habits. When privileges of this sort are not earned, the poor performers invariably spoil it for the good performers. I remember in school when a student pulled a prank and the teacher could not find out who did it, he or she would keep the class in school till someone confessed. In other words, make everyone suffer for the misbehavior of one (or a few).

I see the Best Buy decision as a bit different from Yahoo because of Best Buy’s ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) program, something it began in 2005. The creators of ROWE, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, were Best Buy employees and wrote a book titled, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution. Their idea was that people should be able to work anywhere they want and work only as many hours as was needed to get the job done. Their book was endorsed by the president, at the time Brad Anderson, with much media attention. But Best Buy’s current CEO, Hubert Joly, is in a tough spot as the company stock has fallen 17 percent since Anderson left and it recently hit a 23-year low. Although Joly has only been with the company for 11 months, and no one blames him for its current troubles, he has to make decisions that will turn the company performance around quickly.

I agree with Joly’s comment in February that ROWE was “fundamentally flawed from a leadership perspective.” I also think he was on the right track when he was quoted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Depending on the skill and will of the individual, the right leadership style may be coaching, motivating or directing rather than delegating.” I would only suggest that coaching and motivating are the essential leadership skills regardless of the skill and will of the individual.

It is up to the organization to determine how one earns the privilege of working at home. That involves pinpointing the behaviors necessary to work successfully at home, specifying the level of performance and the time necessary to convince management that the work will be done at an excellent level in the face of all the distractions present in the “home office.” Criteria should also be clearly spelled out for maintaining this privilege. With these criteria in play, the successful manager is the one who has all of his or her eligible employees earning the privilege.

Ressler and Thompson indicate that delegating is a sign of trust. I believe that trust is something you earn, not something you are given as a right bestowed when accepting a job. Work at home is not the issue. The issue is effective leadership. That will be measured, in part, by how soon employees at both companies are able to return to “home work,” the criteria set for earning the privilege and the percentage of eligible employees who actually earn it. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you can see who’s been swimming naked.”