what is ROWE and how does it affect the workplace?

Workstation

Let’s talk about ROWE – a results-oriented work environment. Here’s a good primer.  It’s very simple in the most distilled form:

ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment, (also known as Results Oriented Work Environment), is a management strategy created by CultureRx and used by Best Buy.  In this model, employees are paid for results (output) rather than the number hours worked. The goal is to keep workers who deliver results while firing those who are not productive.

ROWE in practice means “each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want as long as the work gets done.”  Employees control their own calendars, and are not required to be in the office if they can complete their tasks elsewhere.

I’ve read about ROWE and I think one of the primary objections will be on the part of many employees, oddly enough. When companies start realizing that they had 8 people sitting around browsing the web 7 hours a day and working 1 hour a day, they’ll be able to start cutting employees.  I know as a consultant I’m expected to be on-site simply to satisfy the client’s desire to know I’m “working”, when in reality I can complete most of my consulting work in a couple of hours a day.  But as long as companies expect “core hours” they will build inefficiency into the system AND overpay employees (and consultants).  Would most people be happier working in a ROWE environment?  Sure – if they are paid a salary.  If you’re in my shoes and can only bill 2 hours a day in a ROWE environment, but 8 if required to be on site – I don’t know how many people would happily agree to that.

ROWE certainly seems like a step in the right direction, but it’s embraced mainly as a transitional step from traditional employment. I think the future will be much more freelance-ish.  Employees will be treated more and more like freelancers (or will actually BE freelancers).  Companies will use them when they have work that needs doing, and let them go when they don’t.  If it wasn’t for the lack of national health care in America, I think we’d be even closer to that already.  ROWE fixes one problem:  employee dissatisfaction with core hours.  What it doesn’t fix is the problem of salary inequality.  Someone who works 20 hours a week at the same skill level as someone who works 60 hours a week shouldn’t be paid the same.  ROWE seems to assume that salaries are the norm – you’re paid a flat rate to do project work.  The more logical idea will be to start paying employees an hourly rate for effective time.  If you need three hours to complete a project, you get paid for three hours’ work.  If ROWE tells you that you get paid for a full eight-hour day when you only needed three hours to complete your work, then ROWE’s doomed to failure.

The future of American work is – hopefully – the smart convergence of a flexible workplace with government-provided healthcare and diligent knowledge-based workers. I like the idea of a lot of freelancers, or semi-freelancers, providing services to companies on an as-needed basis without fears about health care or retirement savings.  It may be a bit of a dream, but hey – that’s how I’m trying to configure my life so at a minimum I’m doing my bit to move the economic model that way.  I just wonder if that’s REALLY what everyone wants – to actually be paid for what they accomplish, rather than just the amount of time they are clocking in at the job.  I could be wrong, but I suspect most people want to be paid for showing up, not for delivering the goods.

photo credit: Isa Costa

Hunter has an interesting post on this subject that I commented on; it inspired this post.

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