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.

“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.

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.

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.”