Moving to a ROWE

This post is inspired by my co-worker Jason’s recent note he passed around our team on his thoughts on ROWE.

My department hasn’t officially moved to a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) – it’s in the works – but my team has started to follow the thirteen guidelines. With this move, I’ve seen great success in our team and the focus on results has helped cut down on a lot of the noise and wasted effort. We also provide a good example to everyone else that ROWE works and I really can’t wait until the whole department moves. One of the most positive effects on our group is the realization that it doesn’t matter the location or time of day that the work gets done, so long as the result is delivered when needed. Even other groups are starting to embrace this notion: two people from other teams are planning to visit relatives in their home countries between December and January and will work from wherever they’re staying so they can extend their time with family. How awesome is that?

As my colleagues will tell you, I’m a huge proponent of ROWE (I beat a pretty big drum for it). I find myself talking about aspects of ROWE almost daily to anyone who’s willing to listen and what I find quite interesting is that people’s initial acceptance or rejection of ROWE has nothing to do with age, gender, role, or seniority. It really comes down to a person’s mindset about work and the environment they’re in. Some folks who’ve been working for 20 years shrug their shoulders and say they’ve always approached work like a ROWE and even admit having played the presenteeism game because they worked for someone who demanded it. Then there are others who’ve worked far fewer years and can’t wrap their minds around leaving at 2pm to catch a movie or rolling in at 11am, even if they were told it was okay. When I first read about ROWE, I fell somewhere in the middle of these two reactions.

I used to stress about the time I arrived at the office (I still catch myself every now and again). I had one project manager tell me that the client saw me leaving at 3:30pm or 4pm and thought I wasn’t putting in a full effort. I explained to her that I arrived everyday at 7am, often only took 30 mins for lunch, and showed that I was delivering on everything I’d been assigned. I was told it didn’t matter, that it was the perception that mattered, and I’d have to alter when I arrived and left. So I did: I was fresh out of university (where I was used to working on assignments around my part-time job and social life) and I didn’t want to risk my job or make my employer look bad. That generated a lot of stress for me – it undermined my confidence in my abilities and I really disliked having to fit into someone else’s concept of when I’d be most effective. Nuts to that. On a different consulting engagement, one of my client’s leaders walked by my desk at 7:55am looking for someone and remarked, “Do people know what time we start around here?” She was dead serious. I remained silent and cringed inside; someone call Bill Lumbergh.

Since I’ve been working on a team that’s embraced ROWE, I’ve been able to get past the stress of being “late,” leaving “early,” or “disappearing” for a few hours in the middle of the day. We all realize that it’s a personal preference and support each other’s choices. If you want to be in the office at 8 or leave at 2, that’s up to you; just know you aren’t expected to be there if the result doesn’t depend on it. Here’s an example of how liberating yet daunting this notion is: I went to RONA a number of weeks ago from 12:30pm until 2:30pm to buy things to build a deck. It felt weird. I didn’t have any meetings and I had my work cell with me so I could get emails and phone calls. Still, something was itching in the back of my head saying that I should “be at work.” Last century thinking is hard to shake; today it’s a different story. Each day I decide where and when I’ll be most effective. I may roll into our head office at 8 on Monday, start work at home on Wednesday and head to a local office to talk to people mid-morning, and leave the office at 3:30 on Thursday to enjoy the good weather on a patio with a friend. I also have no qualms about lighting up my laptop on a weeknight or weekend. Do I stress about this? No, because I get the work done when it needs to be done.

One thing I’ve found – and this isn’t necessarily related to ROWE – is it can be hard to stop when the desired results have been achieved and I find myself a bit burned out at the end of the week. I’m not alone on my team in this and I suspect it’s more to do with how some of us are geared. Your mind starts turning and you dive in because you’re passionate about what you do. The thing is, there’s always more to do but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done right away. I have to remind myself of the guidepost, “Every day feels like a Saturday.” There are only so many things you can do on a Saturday before you take time for yourself and unwind. So you prioritize, accomplish what you need to, and enjoy the rest of the day. As the saying goes, “No one ever said, ‘I wish I worked more’ before they died.” Amen.

5 comments on “Moving to a ROWEAdd yours →

  1. I’m torn on ROWE. On one hand I feel like I work fast enough to achieve the results for the week required by about noon on Monday. On the other hand as a contractor I feel the metric used to pay me is hours and that is a pretty decent metric. The tradeoff is that I am paid more and the rate I can demand is linked to my productivity.

    I also see a huge flaw in ROWE in that it requires that you be able to create reasonable estimates for how long work should take. I’m sure I don’t have to point out that estimating is more or less impossible. How can you reasonably reward people for doing an uncertain amount of work in a certain period?

  2. I agree that there is a challenge for people who earn their money at an hourly rate. Salary is easier because you’re going to be paid regardless. The ROWE books talk about employers paying hourly employees for 40 hours a week regardless of how many hours are actually spent so long as the result is delivered. When it comes to contractors, this (in my mind) essentially moves all time-based contracts to fixed-price contracts (materials would be charged separately). You still get your rate without the peaks and valleys of number of hours.

    I disagree with your second point: ROWE doesn’t require you to create reasonable estimates. Every job requires you to create estimates and it’s up to the employer/client to judge if they’re reasonable. If you’re an employee and you tell your boss that delivering what they want will take three months +- a month, they will either accept or reject that. If you’re a contractor, your client may agree to sign a one- or two-year contract and set deliverables along the way which you then provide estimates of how long it will take. If the client doesn’t like your estimates, they can choose to revise what’s requested or terminate the contract. Either way, ROWE doesn’t prescribe the need for reasonable estimates.

  3. How can you unlink ROWE from good estimates? At some point you have to sit down and say “How long will this take? What are the milestone goals which trigger a payment?”. You cannot uncouple to two because ROWE is based on the achievement of fractions of work. If your estimates are bad then you end up either driving people to work far too much or you pay people a lot of money for not coming into work. Poor estimates can also lead to a divergence in the amount of work different people work. We may always underestimate database work but always over estimate user interface work. This results in a disparity in how much people work.

    My point is that you cannot produce good estimates. We’ve been trying for years and failing for the same time. Your reply avoids that reality.

    I like the idea of ROWE. However it feels like it has a lot of unanswered issues. Not that our current method of paying people is perfect but the problems have been largely accepted by society. ROWE opens up all sorts of new debates and arguments which may be better left alone. Do we really want to open up the debate about who is more efficient at their work? Who is better? Sounds like a method of demotivating.

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