I received an email asking if I would write about Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) from an Industrial and Organizational (I/O) psychology perspective.
Interestingly, much of the research on ROWE has been coming from the field of sociology. Two sociologists from University of Minnesota’s Flexible Work and Well-Being Center, Dr. Phyllis Moen and Dr. Erin Kelly (Kelly is now at the MIT Sloan School of Management), were the original researchers invited in 2006 to observe and study ROWE as it was being implemented at Best Buy (Flexible Work and Well-Being Center, 2015).
Background of ROWE
Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) was pioneered by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson while they were employed at Best Buy. The seeds of ROWE began in 2001 when a leader at Best Buy corporate headquarters needed help to make Best Buy a top choice among talented people who were seeking jobs. A survey was conducted asking employees what they wanted most from work. Overwhelmingly, the answer was: trust me with my time, trust me to do my job, and I’ll deliver results, and be a happier employee too (Ressler & Thompson, 2008). In a pilot program (called Alternative Work Program) that gave employees a choice from a set of flexible schedules, Ressler observed that “if you gave people even a little control over their time they immediately began to see the benefits both at work and at home.” Employees who were in the pilot program were happier and more productive and they didn’t want it to end (Ressler & Thompson, 2008). Thompson joined in 2003 and what was learned during the pilot program began to grow and change. The program was refined and eventually came to be known as Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE).
Overview of ROWE
In ROWE, employees can work whenever and wherever they want as long their work gets done. ROWE values delivering results over face time at work. “Job performance is evaluated solely on the basis of whether the necessary results are achieved by employees, not whether they’ve put in ‘face-time’ at the office” (Colquitt, LePine, & Wesson, 2015, p. 155).
The idea behind ROWE is that when employees have control over their lives and they are able to work when and where they feel most productive and they’re able to balance work and family demands, they will be more incentivized to produce.
Ressler and Thompson (2008) wrote in their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, that ROWE is based on a simple idea:
“In a Results-Only Work Environment, people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. . .In a ROWE, you can literally do whatever you want whenever you want as long as your work gets done. You have complete control over your life as long as your work gets done” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 3). You can go grocery shopping, take a nap, or go to the movies and never have to ask for permission or tell your boss where you’re going. As long as work gets done and you get results, then it’s your life (Ressler & Thompson, 2008).
Benefits of ROWE
The benefits of ROWE include (Correll, Kelly, O’Connor, & Williams, 2014):
- Increased employees’ control over their work schedule and improved work–life fit
- Reduced work-family conflict and negative work-family spillover
- Positive effect on employees’ sleep duration, energy levels, self-reported health, and exercise
- Reduced turnover
- Increased job satisfaction and organizational commitment
Things That Do Not Change under ROWE
There are some things under ROWE that do not change (Kelly & Moen, 2009):
- Positive and negative home-to-work spillover
- Family-to-work conflict
- Overall assessment of health
- Well-being scale
- Psychosocial job demands scale
- Job control scale (decision authority, skill discretion)
- Job involvement scale
- Satisfaction with coworkers
- Satisfaction with manager
- Work engagement scale
- Psychological distress
- Emotional exhaustion
ROWE is Flexible Work Arrangement (FWA) to the Extreme
ROWE is a type of flexible work arrangement. Flexible work arrangements refer to choices about the time (i.e, when; flextime or scheduling flexibility) and/or location (i.e., where; telecommuting or flexplace) that work is conducted (WorldatWork, 2005; Allen, 2013).
Ressler and Thompson (2008) point out that in a flexible work arrangement: permission is needed, there are limited options, is management controlled, requires policies/guidelines, the focus is on “time off,” and there’s high demand but low control. In a ROWE, you do not need permission, options are unlimited, it’s employee controlled, requires accountability/clear goals, the focus is on “results,” and there’s high demand but also high control.
“[N]o matter how flexible a nontraditional schedule is it’s still a schedule. Flexible schedule is an oxymoron. Which is why in a ROWE there are no schedules” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 69).
“If you get results, then anything else you do with your time is completely up to you. What work looks like in terms of where it takes place and during what hours is no longer important. You work when and how you work best. You are in complete control” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 67).
The Promise of ROWE
Ressler and Thompson (2008) wrote, “in a ROWE you don’t overwork because there is no incentive to overwork” (p. 198). You don’t have to do all-nighters or be the first in the office and the last one to leave because you are rewarded solely on delivering results. “Once you’ve delivered those results, you stop working and do something else. It’s nice” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 198).
The Fanfare and Fizzle
In 2013, in a complete reversal from its initial enthusiastic endorsement of ROWE, Best Buy terminated the program (Wong, 2013). Under a new CEO, Best Buy cited the urgency to turn around its struggling consumer electronics retail business as the reason for ending its Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) program (Lee, 2013). As the company’s spokesperson explained (Lee, 2013): “Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”
But Best Buy was not the only organization to try out and then later abandon ROWE. The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also tried ROWE and soon discontinued the program. A 2011 evaluation of the ROWE pilot revealed that managers were uncertain as to how to evaluate their employees based on their work results. And employees also struggled because they did not understand if they were meeting their expected results (Glazer, 2013).
The Risks and Obstacles of ROWE
Ressler and Thompson argue that ROWE is appropriate in all workplaces but there are situations where it isn’t recommended or appropriate, such as customer service departments, or when employees are new or inexperienced and require more support, or when you’re not certain that team members will complete their tasks at the level of quality and by the deadlines agreed upon (MindTools.com, 2016). As a matter of fact, even researchers of flex work arrangements (Kelly & Moen, 2014) admit that some workers, like those in retail and service positions, must still do their work “at work.”
Despite the promise made by Ressler and Thompson that “in a ROWE you don’t overwork” (Ressler & Thompson, 2008, p. 198), there is research on telecommuting that dispute this claim.
In a previous post on the pitfalls of telecommuting, I wrote that those who telecommute (work from home or another remote location) will tell you that it actually requires you to work more, not less (Noonan & Glass, 2012). In fact, researchers have found that “telecommuters worked between 5 and 7 total hours more per week than nontelecommuters” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 40).
Kelly and Moen (2007) offered this thought when they first began studying ROWE: “Organizational needs—getting the work done—are still emphasized in the ROWE setting, and it is an open question whether increased control is actually beneficial when work demands are very high” (p. 497).
Michelle Conlin (2006) wrote, at the end of her Bloomberg article on ROWE, that, “Some at the company [Best Buy] complain that productivity is up only because many Best Buyers are now working longer hours.”
While a majority of employees say flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, help them to achieve a better work/life balance (Wright, 2014), evidence suggests that it’s not as rosy as one might think. For example, teleworkers reported more time-based family interference with work (FIW) than did non-teleworkers. Indeed, the ability to telecommute or work from home “may enable negative work and nonwork spillover rather than avert it” (Allen, 2013, pp. 706-707).
“The most telling problem with telecommuting as a worklife solution is its strong relationship to long work hours and the “work devotion schema.”” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 45).
“Since telecommuting is intrinsically linked to information technologies that facilitate 24/7 communication between clients, coworkers, and supervisors, telecommuting can potentially increase the penetration of work tasks into home time. Bolstering this interpretation, the 2008 Pew Networked Workers survey reports that the majority of wired workers report telecommuting technology has increased their overall work hours and that workers use technology, especially email, to perform work tasks even when sick or on vacation” (Noonan & Glass, 2012, p. 45).
Moen, Kelly, and Lam (2013) tested “A key question [regarding] whether ROWE actually reduced employees’ time strain, in terms of reducing their work-time demands and/or increasing their time control” (p. 159). The researchers found that “exposure to ROWE increased time control (time adequacy, schedule control) but did not change time demands (work hours, psychological time demands)” (Moen, Kelly, & Lam, 2013, p. 166).
“ROWE flexibility initiative did not reduce psychological time demands, probably because ROWE-type interventions do not diminish the amount, intensity, or expectations of time investments in work” (Moen, Kelly, & Lam, 2013, p. 167).
Takeaway: A Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) sounds great — as a concept. However, the challenges of implementing and the realities involved in working in a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) can reveal major limitations as to its appropriateness for every workplace. In fact, even researchers of flex work arrangements concede that some workers, such as those in retail and service positions, will still need to continue doing their work “at work.” What’s more, contrary to the claim that “in a ROWE you don’t overwork,” some employees working in a ROWE reported that they actually work longer hours.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
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