Would You Do Your Job Better If Your Boss Didn’t Care How You Did It?

Why bosses do the things they do.
May 11 2014 9:45 PM

Don’t Go to Work

The management scheme that lets workers do whatever they want, as long as they get things done.

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But what happens when we give ROWE a taste of its own medicine and judge it solely on its results, instead of its intentions? According to Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and the co-director of the university’s Flexible Work and Well-Being Center who has conducted a number of studies on the effects of ROWE on Best Buy employees, the company’s implementation of ROWE in 2005 had some surprisingly positive results. Moen’s data found that ROWE, among other things:

  • Led to employees sleeping almost a full hour more on nights before workdays, simply because they were less stressed about going to the office.
  • Made people more likely to stay home or go to a doctor when they were sick, which improved overall health and reduced the spread of illness around the office.
  • Allowed people to exercise more.
  • Reduced turnover.
  • Improved morale.

“Our evidence shows that the sense of control over when, where, and how you work really does make a difference in terms of the quality of employees’ lives,” says Moen.

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That all sounds great for the employees. But Ressler and Thompson claim the company benefited, as well. According to them, voluntary turnover rates went down as much as 90 percent on ROWE teams, while productivity on those teams increased by 41 percent. (Best Buy’s stock price tumbled in 2008 along with those of other consumer stocks dependent on discretionary spending, and the company has stumbled along to some extent ever since—suffering from broad trends that have slammed many brick-and-mortar retailers.)

My personal experience is that I find it useful to work from home when I need to deeply concentrate without the distractions of an office. And working from home lets me run errands more efficiently—much quicker and more pleasant to buy groceries on a Tuesday morning than on a Saturday afternoon. At the same time, I find it valuable to head into the Slate office to bounce ideas off colleagues and find out if there are projects brewing that I might be able to play a part in. Thompson hastens to note that she has nothing against working together in an office—if that’s the best way to accomplish the work that everyone agrees needs to get done. Her contention is that a lot of modern work doesn’t really require or benefit from face time, and we should acknowledge that fact and make allowances for it.

After gaining steam and winning adoption at a number of companies in the wake of Best Buy’s well-publicized experiment, ROWE-style workplaces seem recently to have fallen out of fashion. Marissa Mayer ended work-at-home privileges for Yahoo employees in 2013, not long after she became CEO of the company. Mayer claimed that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they're together” in the same physical space—echoing the logic espoused by managers who favor open-plan offices and the collegial mingling they encourage. Even Best Buy, the original home of ROWE, discontinued the practice last year, after the arrival of both a new CEO and some less-than-stellar performance. “It's ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy,” said a spokesman announcing the decision, “and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

“These are employer-led policies,” says Moen, “and when you have new employers or tough times, the norm in organizational change is to go back to basics. We saw that in Yahoo when Marissa Mayer got there, and the same with Best Buy when they had their financial difficulties. But in fact they're not really going back to basics. Because they still expect people to answer email at home and be available at all hours. It's just taking away whatever control employees have.”

Not surprisingly, Thompson is frustrated by these moves to abandon ROWE. “Marissa Mayer didn’t start with results first,” says Thompson, “and then say that people need to come together in the office to drive those results. She said if we throw everybody together, somehow they'll figure out what the results are supposed to be. You are not my mother, Marissa. You don’t know how I communicate and collaborate. What she did in 2013 is soooo 1952 it is laughable. Shame on her.”

As for Best Buy: “We've talked to some people there off the record,” says Moen, “and they say that many of the units and teams are still doing ROWE surreptitiously. They find it hard to go back to the old way of working.”

For Moen, the issue is redefining the culture of the workplace to fit the changing times. “We're using concepts that were developed in the 1950s when you were tethered to a phone or desk or assembly line,” she argues, “and that's simply not the case now. And the workforce also isn’t the same. It used to be the average full-time worker was paired with a full-time homemaker, and now neither men nor women have full-time homemakers supporting them. We need to get up to date by redesigning how we work in terms of the clock.”

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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