Bosses, Stop Caring If Your Employees Are At Their Desks

Have you ever suspected that you’d be healthier, happier, and perhaps even more productive, if you could just get your work done on your own schedule instead of your boss’s? New research suggests you’re probably right.

In 2005, the Best Buy headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota, started shifting over to a "results only work environment," or ROWE. Employees could decide when and where they worked as long as they met certain measurable goals. No more Monday-through-Friday or 9-to-5. Want to come in at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday? Great. You don’t even need to notify your manager, as long as you get that report done by the end of the week.

Two University of Minnesota sociology professors, Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen, recently gathered data from 659 Best Buy employees, both before and after the shift to ROWE. About half of the employees they studied from didn’t switch to ROWE during the study period, providing a control group.

Kelly and Moen—who published their work this week in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior—found that employees who switched to ROWE took better care of themselves. Not only did they get an extra 52 minutes of sleep before workdays on average, they were also less likely to feel obligated to work when sick and more likely to see a doctor when they needed to. And the turnover rate among employees that switched to ROWE was only 6%, compared to 11% with the control group. In addition, their increased sense of schedule control and reduced work-family conflict led to increased self-reported energy levels and decreased psychological distress.

They were healthier and they were also, it seems, more invested. As Moen has described it, "participants reported going to their child’s school play, taking their ailing mother to a doctor, or seeing a doctor themselves—without guilt. Participants described both a sense of freedom and greater responsibility for actually accomplishing results."

The ROWE program was developed at Best Buy by Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson. They have since gone on to found a consulting shop, CultureRx, that helps other companies switch to ROWE. In 2009, Gap became the second major brand to get on board and several smaller companies have been following suit.

Is it easy to switch? According to Moen, "the hardest part of this for most firms and for managers as well as employees is to clarify what exactly are the results to be achieved." That’s certainly something a smart manager should be doing regardless.

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  • Guest

    Businesses seem to be the last ones to jump on what is already considered common knowledge by the general public.  By placing the employees in charge of their own schedules and work periods, they are given a greater feel of accomplishment when succeeding, which pushes them to succeed even more. The thought process of "I have to finish this project so my boss doesn't get on to me," is replaced by the stronger drive of "This project was finished because I worked it out."

    The book they came out with, "Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It," they even note that you see this in the early stages of human development; when a person is forced to, for example, learn a new concept, they are less acclimated and more resistant. On the other hand, if they decide for themselves that they should expand their knowledge, they have created their own drive that more than motivates them to accomplish the work.

  • Tom Dienya

    The other challenge that may arise from this kind of work arrangment is the lose of "social facilitation". This is a psychological situation that emanate from what we learn and see others do in a group setting. Psychologically, when people stay together in a group, such as those working daily from a common office, they learn from "success habits" of one another. For example, an employee observing a creative and successful colleague is likely to behave similarly and hence adopt some of those useful habit. Allowing people to work remotely on their own may create freedom that most people crave. But if you intend to create a very strong team, still, the knowledge that "birds of the same feathers flock together" is not just a cliche.

    Tom Dienya

  • Ed White

     The opposite may also be true in that being around a negative co worker can cause a negative attitude. Pros and cons on both sides, I think you would need to keep some sort of contact going, maybe a weekly staff meeting or team project.

  • Anna-cramm

    so u have to pay $56 ???? to start? monthly??? hmmm...  sounds like a scam ..... and they only put it in a small print in the very end :S, so unless you read it... u ll have a surprise fee

  • Anna-cramm

    ignore this comment, its about another article where there is this "Internet Pay" thing, where u can earn upto 500$ per hour... ototal scam

  • Kundan33

    They must have read Ricard Semlar's books, Maverick and Seven Day Weekend. If you haven't, they're a great read.

  • Daniel Schutzsmith

    This is how we setup Mark & Phil from day one but we didn't know it had an actual term. My philosophy was always that time doesn't matter as much as the end result. My basis is rooted in web design because it could literally take me an hour to make a design or 3 weeks, it all depends on my motivation at the time. Thus we decided to give our staff the motivation to get their own work done while not feeling constrained by formal schedules or expectations to be in the office.

  • Peter Gent

    I work at a company that hasn't formally adopted this policy, but it's very much. If you produce results, we don't care when or where you are doing it. They still like to see us in the office and let them know if we are not going to around. But, it's very much I feel like I'm treated like an adult and that I can do what needs to be done for work and for personal reasons. 
    I also worked for a company who required being there on time, every day. No exceptions. I felt like I was in high school. What happened at that job? It sucked out my soul and I quit. I gave them 1.5 years, and this is a major fortune 50 company. 
    It's awesome how people who feel appreciated can produce better results than being treated like just an expendable employee.

  • Chris Kobar

    Ultimately, the issue all comes back to a few basic things: quality of staff and the trust management has in those staff. Assuming that management does all the hiring in the first place, it really boils down to simply: how good are the managers? Do they know how to hire great staff that are self-motivated, passionate, talented, and dedicated and then trust their new hires with the freedom to actually do what they were supposedly hired to do: the things they do best. 

    Sadly, throughout the professional world, private and public sector, this is rarely the case. Hiring is often done in a way that is more driven by deadlines, budgetary concerns, political pressure and horse trading, and (and worst of all) simply filling seats. This necessarily leads to one outcome: the hires are not viewed as trustworthy champions of the organization who possess the traits needed to achieve amazing results. 

    Instead, staff are viewed as foot soldiers who must constantly be given orders, inspected, second-guessed, dressed-down, and reassigned to tasks to which they are not well-suited. They are not trusted for their expertise or to seize initiative, but are instead constantly being questioned, stalled, and set back. Management all too often has the mentality that "We need to stay on top of these folks!" in order to support the organization's goals. In truth, this is usually the furthest thing from the truth. Showing employees trust, giving them the freedom to do what they do best, and helping them do that by removing obstacles is the very best thing management can do to prosper (and reduce their ulcers).

    Telework, flexible schedules, and similar alternative methods of time management are all fantastic ideas that certainly can work to everyone's great advantage. However, until managers start making more successful hiring decisions, begin trusting their own in-house talent, and stop worrying that unless they treat the staff like babies who need a stern mother watching them, none of these systems will work...any better than having people sit from 9-5 at a desk watching YouTube, using social networks, checking out sports scores, playing online games, or looking for a new job.

  • YI

    Very well put indeed. I'll add that Daniel Pink covers ROWE is his excellent book 'Drive'. I think Best Buy is one of the case studies mentioned. He also notes that 'management' is not some innate aspect of the human psyche but is a technology like anything else. Clearly, management needs to emerge from the stone age, whether we're referring to the technology, or the people who implement it.  

  • sr613

    Good article and it's a shame that still so many companies need these types of stats to attempt to trust their workers and consider ROWE. I agree with RobJDay that the issue of distraction is not a new thing and is not generation-specific.

  • DrWatson

    I don't think a study was needed to prove that but I can see where some people would only believe in this with number to back the claim.
    On the other hand, in a corporate world ruled by mid-level managers, it is very hard to adopt any strategy that will effectively render those very same managers obsolete. I mean, all your employees are accountable and can deliver the expected work without supervision then you might as well reduce your management staff (a Good Thing, IMHO).
    The reality is that many, if not most, workers aren't that accountable and it would be an office war to grant that freedom to some but not others.

  • Wize Adz

    The issue is more complex than this.  I work at a place that claims they don't care (very much, though it's technically in the HR rulebook) about how much time you spend at the desk.  However, I didn't receive enough work to justify my existence (in my opinion), so I spent a lot of time being visible to communicate that I'm serious about my job.  One of my bosses is extraordinarily lousy about communication (he farts in people's office for a "laugh" but won't answer e-mail), and so has failed to communicate what kind of work he needs from me in order to be a full member of the team.

    So, I show up between 9-5 and do as much work as I can guess is important.  Of course, in the meantime, I've taken on a lot of after-hours activities to make sure that I stay sane (technical hobby groups), and to make sure that I will have a job in the future (I'm in a hyperspecialized discipline, so a Part-time MBA seemed like good insurance for my ability to feed my family).  And now suddenly someone has work for me to do that could take 12-hours a day.  Which is now in conflict with the last 2.5 years of work-expectations.

    In practice, issues like flex-time and having to be seen at your desk cut straight to the deepest pats of management and communication.  If my boss had listened all of the times I asked for more work, I wouldn't have tried to fill the void with after-hours activities.  If my boss had communicated his real expectations, I wouldn't have had to make them up.  Unfortunately, I haven't finished my MBA and there aren't really any other jobs for someone with my specialized skills in my area.  Also, my other boss is a really good boss, so the other 50% of my time (which has really been 90% of time time, because of these issues) is pretty awesome.

  • robjday

    Yes it can be more complex and will not work in every situation.  However, the fundamental of the article is that it only works with clearly communicated and consistent expectations.  It sounds like your job lacks that and you compensate with desk time which is not the goal of ROWE.  That's why I think it is a hard transition...

  • robjday

    Thanks for a great article with specific insight.  Woody Allen said 90% of life is just showing up and unfortunately people at work seem to feel that being at work is an accomplishment in of itself.  Therefore if they are in the 4 walls they are "doing their part" and accomplishments are diluted a bit.

    I have to disagree with some of Feinholz comments below though.  I don't think there is any generational gap in knowing what a good week of work means.  A text or social media distraction is no worse than a cig break, water cooler chat, minesweeper, or any of the other million distractions that existed in the world before - they are just different.  I would even argue some of those distractions can even inspire creative energy or new solutions to problems.

    This is not to say there are not slackers who don't know the value of hard work, but for every slacker there is a hard worker and I don't think its a generational divide.

  • feinholz

    Thanks so much for publicizing this research. 20 years ago, as an internal consultant at the Disney company, I was asked my opinion about the 'new' idea: telecommuting. I told the managers to give it a try for six weeks "as long as you already know what quality, on-time, accurate results for a specific role should look like." The challenge for business owners and entrepreneurs today is to get reliable repeatable results from the new generations of folks, many of whom have never learned what the results ought to be from one solid day or one solid week of undistracted time and attention. Back then there were no email distractions, and few personal calls during the work day. Now we add perpetual text messaging and personal calls as the norm throughout each hour... What an amazing new world of work we're in the midst of creating.
    Linda Feinholz