I’m a business owner with employees and maybe you are too. Now think about this with me. Do you care how much time your employees put in, or do you care what they get done? Unless you run a law firm or another service business that bills strictly by the hour, you probably lean towards the latter. Then answer this question–do you care when your employees get their work done, or just that the work gets done by a certain time? Again, not all, but many companies would lean towards the latter.
You might be aware of small companies here and there that don’t have set working hours and focus on results rather than time put in, but now major companies like Best Buy are jumping on the bandwagon.
It’s called ROWE, or a “results-only work environment,” and it flies in the face of the generally accepted idea that full time employees need to work from 8am to 5pm in order to be worthy of their pay. Instead, it teaches the seemingly obvious concept that what employees get done is more important than how much time they put in and when.
Other large companies like IBM have had some sort of flex-time schedule for many of their employees for years. One of my professors at BYU who previously worked for IBM never had an office at IBM, he just worked from a home office and set his own hours. But no large company has ever instituted the practice for their entire workforce, which in the case of Best Buy means all their 4,000 corporate employees.
The practice doesn’t work for every situation. Obviously there would be a problem if Best Buy extended the option to its retail employees, because place and time are essential components of their job. Likewise restaurants, oil change stations, dry cleaners, and many other businesses clearly can’t offer their employees the choice of working when they want, where they want. My own father, as an optical engineer for NASA, couldn’t have worked very well from home because he often worked in a laboratory, and so his physical presence was an essential part of his job description. However, if he were still working today instead of enjoying retirement he could probably do 50-75% of his work remotely due to the Internet and increased use of computer modeling software.
But ROWE could work quite well for millions of employees across the United States, let alone the rest of the world. And by replacing the paradigm of an 8 to 5 workplace with results-oriented standards, I predict we would see a substantial increase in worker productivity. If all or much of what an employee has to do in order to make the boss happy is sit in his seat and look busy for 8 hours per day then we’ve got a “run out the clock” situation. But if we tell that same employee that he can take the rest of the day off as soon as he gets his work done, then we might see him finishing what previously would have taken days in a matter of a few hours, and he’ll be constantly looking for new ways to get work done faster.
This could backfire if employers begin piling more work on employees without any raise in compensation. After all, the logical thinking of an employer whose employees can get their work done in two hours each day would be that they must not have enough work to do. Employers need to resist the temptation to see things this way, otherwise their employees will come to understand that no matter what they do, they’re going to end up working 8 hours per day, and would they rather be extremely busy 8 hours per day, or have the option of taking it easy like they did before?
The ROWE system only works if there is a reward for getting work done faster, and there are only two rewards that matter–higher pay and time off. If you remove the ability for employees to make more money by working harder, or you remove the ability for them to work harder in order to have time off, then you remove the incentive for them to work harder in the first place.
Employers who are instituting ROWE policies should look at ROWE as being something that can help them get work done faster, allows them to give their employees marginally increased amounts of work (easy, not too much!), and gives them a valuable tool for employee retention, at least until everyone else starts offering ROWE as well.
At my firm this is essentially the way I’ve run things for years. I’ve always told my employees, with the exception of the office manager who answers the phones, that I don’t really care when they work, as long as they’re getting their work done. I have to admit I’ve waffled a bit on this, however. Sometimes I have felt that some employees feel there is a lack of structure and that things are disorganized. But perhaps that is due to me not talking with them about ROWE as part of a purposeful plan, rather than me just being a lazy employer who doesn’t care.
Ultimately I believe the majority of employers who can offer ROWE will, and to a greater extent than previously seen. It will work in many situations, and companies that don’t offer it will become less competitive. If it can be implemented widely in the U.S. it could also create added advantage for the U.S. economy as worker productivity goes up. There are also many fringe benefits such as the flexibility it gives to those with families and those who need to work multiple jobs. What if someone who now works two full time jobs could work three full time jobs and get all their work done in 12 hours? This could be a tool for helping single parents, the poor, and those who are in debt, leading to a host of positive consequences that go beyond the workplace and influence society at large.