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.

abandon the office.
Chair-warming presenteeism: No longer necessary.

Photo by Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

In 2003, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson were developing new human resources guidelines at Best Buy, the electronics retailer, when they suggested a profound shift in the way the company managed its employees. They wondered what might happen if they granted workers 100 percent autonomy and expected of them 100 percent accountability. What if employees were judged solely on the work they did and not at all on the manner in which they did it? 

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

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

Ressler and Thompson dubbed their plan the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. The scheme involved some radical proposals. People could work from home absolutely anytime they felt like it, without needing a reason or excuse. There would be no such thing as a sick day or a vacation allotment—employees could take off as much time as they wanted, whenever they saw fit. Perhaps most provocative: All meetings would be optional. Even if your boss had invited you. Don’t think you need to be there? Don’t come.

In return for this absolute freedom, workers would need to produce. Bosses would set macro expectations (e.g., increase sales by 10 percent) and then assess the results without micromanaging (e.g., keeping tabs on who arrived at the office earliest in the morning or left latest at night). If the goal was met, there were no complaints from your boss about that Tuesday afternoon you spent at your kid’s soccer game. If the goal wasn’t met, no amount of face time around the office would substitute for the lack of results. Of course, if your job description involved opening up the store at 9 a.m., fulfillment of that goal was a must. But for knowledge workers, measuring output became entirely divorced from hours logged in the office.

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“You can imagine the shitstorm we created,” says Thompson. “We were letting people run free like unicorns. We were also shining a bright light on the people who’d previously been able to hide inside the system by showing up every day without actually accomplishing much.”

For Thompson, the key difference under ROWE is that superiors are managing the work instead of managing the people. It forces clear thinking on what the expectations should be for delivering results. By the same token, it eliminates the need to look at time sheets or to make someone feel guilty for leaving her desk to go to a dentist’s appointment.

Thompson claims the effect on employees is remarkable. “When you get to take over your own life and feel responsible for yourself and your work,” she says, “you feel proud and liberated and dignified. Managers come to us and say, ‘My people grew four feet! I can’t even recognize them.’ Something happens to you when you feel like an adult again at work. It's the control, but it's also the clarity on top of it. I now need to know what my results are supposed to be so I can prove that I’m getting there.”

Decades ago, sure, it was useful to be physically present in the office as much as possible. That way, your boss knew how to find you when it was time to get a question answered or to work together on a project. Now, though, we have mobile phones and email and instant messenger and collaboration software. It’s quite easy to get things done from different places and at different times. Chair-warming presenteeism isn’t necessary.

To Thompson and Ressler, at this point even traditional flextime arrangements—where, say, an employee is allowed to start and finish work an hour later than the norm or is allowed to telecommute on two agreed-upon, predetermined days of each week—are unacceptable half-measures. A worker should be free to wake up, look at rush-hour traffic, and decide she’ll be more productive if she stays home that morning and instead drives into the office at noon. She should be free to spontaneously spend a day volunteering at her child’s school without asking permission from anyone at her office.  

Thompson and Ressler have laid out their blueprint for ROWE in a book titled Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. Among their list of best practices is their assertion that for ROWE to succeed, a workplace must eliminate something they term “sludge.” Sludge is any comment that’s meant to make a co-worker feel guilty about process rather than results. For example: “Nice of you to join us, Judy,” when Judy arrives at the office a little late in the morning. Or: “I wish I had kids like Bill. He never has to be at work,” when Bill leaves early to see his daughter’s school play. These sorts of comments reinforce an outdated view of the relationship between a knowledge worker’s time spent at a desk and his overall productivity.

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