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Do 'results-only workplaces' work? How to give your staff freedom without creating chaos

'The holy grail of talent management'

(Illustration: Remie Geoffroi)

(Illustration: Remie Geoffroi)

Micromanaging wasn’t working for Marc Hill. As Digital Giants, his Barrie, Ont., marketing agency, grew from a one-man outfit into a six-employee firm, he found he was spending much of his time tracking his staff’s work. “It was horrible,” he says. “I wanted to let them make their own decisions about how they worked, based on what worked best for them.”

So Hill opted to go hands-off and turn his company into a results-only work environment. ROWE, as the model is dubbed, has been gaining popularity ever since Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, two HR staffers at Best Buy, developed it in 2002 to eradicate workplace complacency and dissatisfaction. Staff are free to do work whenever and wherever, as long as they deliver. “It’s about focusing on one thing only: superior results for the organization,” explains Thompson who, with partner Ressler, now helps companies implement the system. “It makes employees 100% accountable and 100% autonomous. It gets the crap out of the way so people can do what they were hired to do: the work.”

Several high-profile companies (and scores of small ones) have adopted ROWE. Eric Severson, head of HR at Gap, recently called the model “the holy grail of talent management,” crediting it with raising productivity by 22% among participating workers. A number of studies attest to ROWEs’ effectiveness in improving productivity and employee satisfaction. Most employers who adopt it can’t imagine going back.

But systems like ROWE can backfire—for employers and employees. Best Buy, where ROWE was born, abandoned it last year. And ROWE’s vaunted autonomy has a Darwinian tinge: “In a ROWE, the bottom line is, no results, no job,” says Thompson. To avoid finding empty desks and no work being done, you have to set the right conditions.

Get management on board

ROWE may rely on delegating, but make no mistake: good management is essential to its success. In a results-only environment, a manager’s job isn’t to peer over shoulders but to serve as a so-called results coach who defines and conveys what’s expected of employees—and enforces real consequences when goals go unmet. “When a ROWE gets derailed, it’s often because staff aren’t clear about the work they have to do,” says Thompson, “and managers aren’t holding them accountable.” (Observers have cited Best Buy managers’ failure to do this as a key reason the firm scrapped ROWE in early 2013.)

Management plays another essential role in a ROWE: keeping up camaraderie in a workplace where staff maintain erratic schedules. “A dynamic leader creates a touchstone to help people feel like a team,” says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Ivey Business School. This requires strong interpersonal skills and assertiveness, as well as listening and negotiating talents. “If your leaders don’t have that, ROWE is probably going to fail,” she says.

Educate your employees

Autonomy is appealing to staff, but it takes getting used to. In a ROWE, employees must accept that it’s none of their business when and where a colleague works. The “Oh, look who’s leaving early again” judgments—behaviour Thompson calls “sludge”—have no place here.

“You realize once that’s gone how stressful and toxic it was,” says Julie Cole, co-founder of Hamilton-based label manufacturer Mabel’s Labels. In the year since the company became a ROWE, Cole has seen a huge drop in snark. Now, if an employee leaves for an afternoon, she doesn’t ask her manager for permission, explains Cynthia Esp, another Mabel’s co-founder. “She’ll go to her colleagues and say, ‘Hey, I have this thing going on. Can we still [achieve] what we need to today if I go?’ The team is there to support and fill the gaps, and it goes back and forth.”

To ease the transition, Mabel’s brought in Thompson for a daylong workshop during which staff could voice concerns. That helped alleviate their biggest fear—of being judged a slacker when they’re away from their desks.

Invest in workflow tools

You’ll have a tough time moving from a nine-to-five culture to a ROWE without processes to manage the new order. Be ready to get comfortable with metrics, for example. The “R” part of ROWE means managers have to develop measurable goals. That can be tough; as Esp says, “measuring outcomes is a lot more work than looking over and seeing whether someone is sitting there.” For instance, a shipping employee’s target is no longer to get as much done as they can in eight hours, but to ship a set amount of items by a set deadline.

You will also need technology. Project management software that staff can access from anywhere will keep work flowing. Some ROWE devotees find scheduling software helpful to plan meetings and know when to expect a colleague’s response.

Give it time

Be warned: you can’t go ROWE overnight. It takes time for managers to adapt, employees to get on board and processes to evolve. That’s often hard for leaders—especially impatient entrepreneurial types—to embrace. Educating people and experimenting with different models can take several months, or even years.

Slow and steady has been key to the success of the ROWE Hill introduced at Digital Giants three years ago. He worked with staff to set out goals and then let them determine how they achieved them. He’s seen morale improve and productivity rise. And Hill no longer doubles as a babysitter: “I’m treating my staff like adults.”