• Tech

Finding Freedom at Work

6 minute read

In 2003, Best Buy’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis was just another cubicle beehive buzzing with nine-to-fivers. Today, the electronics retail giant is leading a workplace revolution. Two employees — Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson — brought about the change by proposing a radical approach to work. Dubbed ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment, the concept can be boiled down to the following:

Each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done.

In other words, Best Buy allows its workers limitless flexibility — in the hours they keep and the location they choose to do business — so long as project goals are satisfied. Sound kooky? It is. So kooky that Best Buy has seen productivity soar 41% between 2005 and 2007 on ROWE teams. Meanwhile, voluntary turnover plunged 90%, saving the company some $16 million a year. Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson has embraced the program and has applied it to 80% of the staff at headquarters. Ressler and Thompson, who have since left Best Buy to found a consulting company called CultureRx, have co-authored a book detailing their experiment. Why Work Sucks — and How to Fix It is due out June 2. They spoke to TIME’s Lisa Takeuchi Cullen.

TIME: Let’s start with the genesis of ROWE. When you were tasked with finding new workplace solutions at Best Buy, the company was already an industry leader and a sought-after employer. What made you think things were broken — so broken, in fact, that only a radical solution could mend it?

Thompson: Best Buy was considered a great place to work, but the work environment was much like any across America: lots of face time, lots of hours, lots of meetings. When we started to think about destructuring, we did not benchmark. Work-life programs have been around for 40 years, and they don’t work.

Last week, Families and Work Institute released a major study showing what seems like an improvement: 79% of employers now allow workers some flexibility in when they arrive at and leave from work, up from 68% in 1998. But you say in your book, and I quote: “Flextime is nonsense.”

Ressler: That we’re still at the point where only some employers are allowing people to change the time they come and go from work is extremely sad. People are adults. Employers are hiring people over 18 who have brains and can make their own decisions about time. Letting them make the choice between leaving at 5 or 5:30 is extremely paternalistic. It’s a joke, and the joke is on you.

There are three things wrong with today’s idea of flexibility. One, it’s very limited; it’s coming in at 9 instead of 8. Two, there’s limited access; only certain people with certain jobs get it. Third, and this is still pretty hush-hush, is that there’s a career trade-off. People who opt to work in a “nontraditional” manner are stigmatized. They’re getting their work done, but they’re judged and punished by being passed over for promotions.

What is sludge, and is it edible?

Ressler: Sludge is the toxic language that judges how people are spending their time. Like: “Oh, it’s 10 o’clock and you’re just getting in?” “Boy, smokers sure get a lot of breaks.” “Did you see Jody leave early? I wish I had a kid.” This kind of talk permeates every single work environment. Everybody’s judging everybody else. It’s one reason why flexible work arrangements don’t work: if you’re on one, it’s a sludge generator. Boy, did you hear Lisa is on flex time? I wish I had a kid. You get passed over for promotions. People talk about you.

Explain how ROWE works. How is ROWE like Tivo?

Thompson: There was a time when TV controlled what you watched, when you watched. Tivo is time-shifting. You control your experience with the TV based on what makes sense, not what the clock says. Just like I don’t have to watch my show at 6:30, I don’t have to do my work at 8 in morning but at 10, after my kids are at school.

The best way to explain how ROWE works is to look at our 13 guideposts. Of these, the most integral ones are also the ones that freak people out the most. One is, “Every meeting is optional.” That one makes managers crazy. It’s a shift in power from the person calling the meeting to the people attending, who get to vote with their presence whether or not it’s worth their time.

Are all meetings meaningless?

Ressler: When you think about it, calling a meeting and forcing people to come is one of biggest shows of power in the work environment. We asked workers across the country how they decide which meetings to attend, and they said they first look at who invited them. Is it politically dangerous not to show up? When we give them the power to decide for themselves, instead they ask, Is it really worth my time? Meetings can still happen, but the people get to decide when and where and if it’s the best use of their time. For leaders, that’s a very difficult thing to accept.

So I should ignore those mandatory meeting e-mails.

Thompson: If you think it’s a colossal waste of time, and here’s why, in a ROWE it’s up to you to put that out there to the meeting manager.

Ressler: It takes one person to voice the insanity of that waste-of-time meeting. I guarantee the four other people in the meeting will follow.

What kind of workplace is an ideal ROWE candidate?

Ressler: We’ve perfected ROWE for the office environment. Any office environment is perfect: big companies, small, midsize. We’ve migrated Best Buy as well as a company with 20 employees in Wisconsin. What’s amazing is that all employers deal with the same issues — even companies of two people. It’s because our beliefs are so strong about how work needs to happen.

How would ROWE apply to, oh, say, a staff writer at a weekly news magazine with a small child and one on the way?

Thompson: A Results-Only Work Environment is about you having complete control over your time. Managers and employees need to get crystal clear about outcomes. You write stories and have deadlines — that’s your outcome. How you do that is your concern. We like to say work is not a place you go; it’s something you do. As long as you meet deadlines, that’s what counts.

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