5 Good Reasons Why ROWE Hasn’t Quite Caught On Yet

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Jun 17, 2010

Results-Only Work Environment (or ROWE) has been something I’ve always been extremely fond of in theory but extremely skeptical of in practice. If you haven’t heard about ROWE, it is the idea that the hours your employees work don’t matter as long as you get the desired results.

I love the idea. And it even works in some environments. That is amazing in and of itself because it is such a paradigm shift. But to call it a revolution like the Star Tribune called it last year is more home cooking and less about being data based. NPR reported that 3% of companies were using ROWE in their workplace but that doesn’t give any indication as to the number of employees covered by the progressive workplace management system. If you believe (like I do) that smaller businesses are naturally more capable of deploying a program like this, a fraction of a percent of employees would be covered under that plan.

Is the idea dead? Not quite, but there are a few reasons why you haven’t seen widespread adoption of it just yet:

It doesn’t work everywhere

Any situation where timing at your place of business is an issue is going to be unfriendly to a true ROWE implementation. What does that include? How about manufacturing when thousands of employees are working in unison to ship a product? How about retail when you need your doors open and appropriate staffing levels for the traffic you will receive at various times during the day? How about a doctor’s office when part of the job is actually being there to see patients? Sometime, having employees physically at work is a legitimate and desired result.

The economy hasn’t helped

When the economy tanked, most companies looked to traditional (and generally proven) ways of shedding costs. This did not include implementing a program with an unproven track record. Call it right or call it wrong, but companies go back to the basics and the known and proven when there is fear or they are coping with significant change. And, 2009 was a whole bundle of fear for many companies.

Reversing decades of management practice

Even if the economy was in better shape, the whole reversing of management practices handed down through generations would make it tough on the ROWE crowd. Change is almost always tough, but when you’re talking about culture, I don’t think you are talking about a six to 12 month implementation period that is often touted with ROWE programs. You are talking about multiple years to get it done, along with some un-fun, un-ROWE-like management turnover.

Employees love it for the wrong reasons

When I hear an employee talk about ROWE, they always talk about the unlimited PTO, the lack of mandatory meetings, and losing that whole “you’re leaving early?” judgmental vibe. What don’t I hear about? How you’re still responsible for your results, even if grandma died or you just decided you needed a shopping break. ROWE flexibility also requires flexibility from employees to get the job done no matter what, because that’s what you’re being judged on. That’s no walk in the park.

Ironically enough, the results just aren’t there yet

I’ve read the case studies. The most dramatic numbers supporting ROWE come from employee engagement and turnover statistics. Yes, there are modest gains in productivity too, but they aren’t the eye popping numbers that the other ones are. Most managers are going to downplay those numbers as not being substantial enough to push for change.

The turnover statistic is practically useless unless you are also measuring whether you are retaining the right people, and the employee engagement score is squishy and can be manipulated by an employee base looking to keep (or change) the status quo. It would also be wise to start figuring out how companies are making more money by using ROWE. The cost savings argument (when most companies are cut to the bone as it is) has been severely weakened due to the recession.

Nobody is sending out press releases when they discontinue using ROWE , or when they let a test of it simply die, so it is hard to get a sense as to how often companies get a negative result from using ROWE. However,  you would assume that if it were so brilliant, easy to sell to management, and fantastically simple to implement that it would be going like gangbusters throughout Corporate America.

It isn’t. What has to change for that to happen, or is ROWE simply not going to survive?

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