Thursday, April 25, 2019

Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)

Recently I have been doing quite some reading on remote work. In one of the books I was reading, the author suggested adopting ROWE to make remote work easier. I had heard about ROWE 10 years ago but then almost forgotten about it. It sparked some thoughts and after brief conversations with Henning and Stefan, I feel these thoughts are worth sharing.

What is ROWE?

ROWE is, of course, an acronym. It's short for "Results-only Work Environment". I am not going into details or the history of the concept - this blog post by Steve Nguyen gives a good overview.
The basic idea of ROWE is pretty simple: Results are all that counts. It does not matter when people work; it does not matter where people work; it does not matter how people work - as long as they deliver the desired results.
It‘s easy to understand why this concept is appealing to Agile folks: It gives a lot of autonomy (back) to the employees and frees them from micor-management and stupid policies. To my understanding ROWE was developed as an alternative approach to being paid and evaluated simply by how much time someone spends in the office. That surely makes a lot of sense. And it explains why ROWE got quite some traction in government agencies and big, old-school corporations.

Problems with ROWE

We all want great results. So what‘s not to like? Reading through some articles, the main areas of criticism seem to be that a) It‘s very hard to create a shared understanding of the desired results and how to measure them; and b) contrary to proponents‘ claims, ROWE does not always reduce working long hours. Some studies indicate it can have the opposite effect and actually harm work-life balance even more than traditional work environments (see "the Risks and Obstacles of ROWE" in Nguyen‘s post for sources).
These concerns sound legit to me, but in this blog post I want to stress a different concern, that is probably as serious as the ones already mentioned. I use ROWE as an example, but the critique holds true for any kind of hands-off management that focuses entirely on results/targets. My main concern is:

ROWE totally ignores methods and therefore makes organizational learning very hard (if not impossible).
Imagine you are running ROWE in a small company. You as a CEO are quite happy with the results. Your clients are also happy, and you earn a lot of money. Now you want to grow the business and hire a bunch of new people. How do you onboard them? Sure, you can agree on desired results with them and hope for the best. But chances are that at a certain point you will not be happy with the results anymore. What do you do now (other than fire people, because they are "under-performers"? How do you train people, if you have no understanding which methods work in which situations and which don‘t? How do you make sure co-workers will learn from each other, if there is no structured conversation about methods? Learning and scaling the business becomes incredibly hard in this situation. And for employees who struggle with their work (for whatever reason) it becomes very frustrating, because there will likely be no structured mentoring.
And it gets worse. Deming advised managers always to ask "By what method?" whenever someone bragged about their achievements. He stressed the importance of a solid method you can learn, teach and iterate on. If you don‘t do this and purely look at results, you are rewarding luck and unethical behavior.


Yes, we want to keep methods as lightweight as possible. But let‘s not throw out the baby with the bath water and abandon them all together. Without solid and explicit methods there will be no organisational learning, and personal development of the employees will be sub-optimal. ROWE might sound appealing at first glance, because it emphasizes individual autonomy, but it does exactly that: neglecting the methods that can (repeatedly) lead to great results.

P.S. If you liked this blog post, you should check out my post on company structures.

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