ROWE Redux

I seem to have stirred the pot with my last post:Results Only Work Environment: A Leadership Problem.” One comment in particular deserves my further comment and validation. It came, ironically, from the author of the book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution. My initial blog was written in response to recent across-the-board decisions at both Best Buy and Yahoo to eliminate Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) and telecommuting, respectively, in their organizations. Apparently one of the authors, Jody Thompson, did not like what I had to say, because she said in part, “Joly [president of Best Buy] doesn’t get it and neither do you, I’m afraid.” Based on her brief comment, I’m not sure just what I don’t get, but I am sure that Thompson doesn’t get the laws of behavior, proven and irrefutable. The book and the concept were things that she and her co-author, Cali Ressler, made up (i.e. not research-based) from their own experiences at work, and from the title of the book, it appears those experiences were all bad.

First let me say that a results only work environment has proved to be dangerous in certain workplace settings. The world of safety is one such environment where it does not work, and the behavior-based safety approach has demonstrated that fact for over 15 years. It has been proven that employees can do something unsafe for years and not have a single accident. Take, for instance, the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It had a record of good safety results for many years. We should absolutely care about how people get results. If you are not concerned with how people get results, it is possible to lie, cheat and steal to get them.

When I was in the Army, I heard it said many times, “I don’t care how you get it, just get it.” There was even a name for the process of accomplishing the task that way. It was called a “moonlight requisition.” In other words, find it and confiscate it. Steal it. What was usually said by the officer in this situation was, “I don’t even want to know how you get it.” This method of operation (MO) was apparently used in the Watergate scandal where “operatives” were told to get competitive information about the Democrat presidential plans and strategy. They were apparently told something like, “I don’t even want to know how you do it, but I want it tomorrow.” That MO created one of the biggest scandals in the history of American politics.

If we turn back to the workplace, just recently it was reported that an employee successfully farmed his job out to China for less than one-sixth of his salary. And, he received stellar performance reviews, for work he did not even do. Although he was fired, I thought that it was pretty innovative, although highly unethical. While Ressler and Thompson might not frown on this behavior since the company got excellent work for no extra cost, where would they draw the line? What if he had asked a friend from a competitor to do the work for him? What if he hacked into a competitor’s IT files and copied what they were doing and presented it as his work?

It is never appropriate to only look at results. I have written extensively about this for many years. It does matter HOW the job gets done. Thompson says, “a ROWE is about results. Period.” This is naïve and it is surprising that companies actually buy it. As far as I can tell, the authors relied on their personal experience to design this “system.” To my knowledge there was no behavioral research base for it.

If you understand behavior from a scientific and research based perspective, you would know that whether you do a job from home or on the beach, it could still be a job where employees disliked it and felt controlled, pressured and negative about the work. What makes you happy at work is not what you do or where you do it, but what happens to you when you do it.

Having written all of this, I recognize that far too many companies have policies, procedures and management behaviors that get in the way of getting things done in the most efficient and effective way. In the future I am sure that we will see a dramatic reduction in the workplaces managed by a command-and-control hierarchical structure. In the future, it is my hope that companies will rely on front-line employees to determine what is needed to get the job done in a way that is most efficient and effective, with managers and supervisors transformed into coaches whose sole mission is to help those employees be successful in what they set out to accomplish. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I know it will be a better and more successful workplace. I do know that it won’t be ROWE.