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A brief history of ROWE
ROWE originated as a byproduct of flextime. After launching a flextime pilot project while working at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis, Cali Ressler, co-creator of ROWE, determined that flexible work wouldn't be successful on a larger scale. That's when she and her coworker Jody Thompson came up with something that would.
In 2004, the pair rolled out ROWE to Best Buy's corporate population. They launched CultureRx, a ROWE outreach organization and subsidiary of Best Buy, the following year. By the time they left Best Buy to operate CultureRx full-time in 2007, as many as 80 percent of corporate employees were being evaluated based on their performance alone. Since then, Thompson and Ressler have introduced ROWE to companies across the U.S. and Canada.
While ROWE almost invariably offers workers some flexibility, Thompson rejects the term. "Flexibility is the new F-word." You can't reconcile flexibility with a permission-based management style that governs the people rather than the work, she says.
"Even though you're able to work from home, you're still expected to be on the clock. You still have to be available when I say. We can allow people to work offsite, but we're still not a culture that understands what results are and how to measure them."
The benefits of ROWE
In a 2012 study published in Industrial Relations, University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and China's Renmin University researchers looked at the 35 percent of Canadian firms with flextime policies and found that there were many benefits of flexible work: decreased absenteeism and increased job satisfaction and productivity. The same could be said of ROWE.
Unlike many nine-to-fivers who can spend hours tending to Facebook and personal emails while on the job, those who are evaluated based on performance make the most of working hours. "It eliminates complacency and incompetence," says Thompson. But that doesn't mean poor performers are frequently eliminated. "Ninety-nine percent of people want to do a good job. People rise to the occasion."
That's not to say turnover doesn't happen. According to the same study, the problem with ROWE-related turnover arises when companies are overly focused on cost reduction. Employees feel expendable, undermining the program's success. But even for companies that do value talent over the bottom line, profitability is yet another advantage.
ATB Financial, an Alberta financial services institution, found that its employees have been able to do more with less since the company implemented the program last fall. "We've become a lot more intentional with our time and meetings," says Carly Phenix, director of people practices in ATB's business and agriculture division. "We try to have more meaningful meetings with expected outcomes. People are getting more time back in their day to do the work."
All hands on deck
Funnily enough, tech companies are the ones that have been turning away from ROWE and telework programs, a trend that prevailed throughout 2013. In February, Marissa Mayer became infamous for eliminating Yahoo!'s telework program, saying she needed "all hands on deck." She earned international flak for being unsympathetic to families, specifically mothers who felt betrayed by a fellow female, and for failing to trust employees--even monitoring online activities.
One week later, Hubert Joly, Best Buy president and CEO, put an end to the results-only work environment in the workplaces where it all began. By the close of the year, one more tech giant, HP, joined the ranks of flex-free employers. "It's the perfect time for companies to bring in results-only work environment, but there's so much fear because it's such a radical change," says Thompson.
Why has ROWE failed in some workplaces?
Perception is perhaps ROWE's greatest obstacle. Being absent from your desk is seen as slacking, by coworkers, managers and even investors. "Shareholders don't understand what results-only work environment is, so they feel better if everybody is in the office."
As for why ROWE has failed in some workplaces, Phenix points to flawed execution of the program. "You can't have the autonomy without the accountability," she says. "I think that's where people fall short."
For the program to be sustainable, ATB shapes its autonomy-based culture throughout the hiring and training process. "We're very particular around the DNA of the people that we bring in and the focus that we want them to have," says Phenix. Select employees have also become ROWE certified, enabling them to train and coach both existing and new employees.
The future of telework
While the post-geographic office has lost traction in the U.S. in recent years, it has only started to take form here in Canada. Mabel's Labels, a Hamilton-based label manufacturer, became the first company in the country to adopt ROWE in April 2013. ATB began implementing the program shortly after with its first ROWE workshop in November.
And let's not forget about the 35 percent of Canadian companies that offer flextime to employees. "Flexible work will have a strong voice, but over the next 10 to 20 years that will stop, especially with the next generation," says Thompson. Instead, Gen Y and those who follow will see the current way of workplace thinking for what it is: "an old, archaic 1952 system."