National Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

It's been 10 years since Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler put police tape across the entrances to their cubicles and walked away for good. "We got this tape that said, 'Cube Free.' And we said, 'We're going to live it. This is what it looks like,' " Thompson remembers.

The two women were human-resource managers at Best Buy at the time, tasked with incorporating more workplace flexibility at company headquarters. Their bosses got way more than they bargained for. Thompson and Ressler quickly realized that the desired change wasn't as simple as allowing people to work from home. True flexibility would require rethinking the entire corporate culture—from CEO to secretary.

"We knew that companies have been trying to do flexible work schedules for 50 years. And it's stupid," Thompson says. "The old model of flexibility is broken. People don't want flexible work schedules. What they want is complete control over their time."

This is how Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, was born. Thompson and Ressler spent two years implementing a plan through which workers at Best Buy headquarters were responsible only for a defined outcome in their jobs. They weren't judged on anything extraneous, such as attendance at meetings or hours in the office. "The hierarchy goes from vertical to horizontal," Thompson says. "The whole idea for the manager is to manage the work, not the people."

The duo liked their idea so much they patented it. They tinkered with the model for a few more years at Best Buy, but then the retailer ushered in a new CEO who formally abandoned the practice. Thompson says mid-level Best Buy managers still use the results-only tenets, even if they're not calling it ROWE.

ROWE, for its part, spun off. The consulting firm that Thompson and Ressler founded now certifies companies that have thrown away their time clocks and pay people solely for a defined result. ROWE's principles are stark and simple. Here are a few:

"Every meeting is optional. Being accountable for delivering results is not."

"Core hours or schedules are not dictated by managers."

"People never talk about how many hours they work."

ROWE in its purest form is essentially a salary-for-service model of employment. There are no vacation days. There are no "off" hours or "on" hours. There is only a defined task and a person or team who completes that task. It is up to the employees to determine how that happens, whether it's from a coffee shop in mid-afternoon or in a closet-sized home office at 3 a.m. If the work gets done, they get paid. If it doesn't, they get fired.

This is how employment in the future could look as digital innovations make an office-centric environment less necessary and employers are searching for more productivity from fewer people. But it's certainly not for everyone. Workplaces with deeply engrained hierarchical cultures won't make the adjustment. "I have talked to leaders who have said to me, 'I believe that you're going to get the best out of people if you give them rules and you make them stick to rules,' " Thompson says. 

She is well aware that a results-only approach can make both managers and employees squirm. "We came up with this model of a workplace where people would be 100 percent autonomous and 100 percent accountable. And at that time it was like 'Whoa, wait a minute. You can't have people be 100 percent autonomous because all of a sudden, nobody's going to do any work.' "

The research on ROWE shows that's not true. Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, studied Best Buy's result-oriented workplace and found that there was no noticeable change in the number of hours that employees worked. There was, however, considerable variability in where and when they worked. Their productivity either improved or stayed the same on every measure.

But Moen is among those who worry that the result-only concept could morph into a new way for employers to ensure that employees are "on" all the time, even when they are technically not working. She is currently researching training models for managers to help them provide supports for their workers, as well as appropriate benchmarks. Part of that training involves managers understanding their employees' lives, without judgment about their choices. That's a big mental leap away from some leadership styles.

"You're adjusting to all those individuals and how they're choosing to run their entire life, not just their work life," says Susan Hoaby, president of JL Buchanan, a retail consulting firm that implemented ROWE in 2009. "The world is changing, too. Everybody's working harder. Everybody works 24/7," she adds. "It's easy to blame ROWE for feeling like you're working hard. You're working smart, and working smart is harder."

Moen's research found that Best Buy workers did, at times, work long hours. But employees largely didn't mind because they appreciated being treated like grown-ups in a high-performance workplace. They could relax during down times.

Even if the work is intense, an office-hours-free environment is a huge boon to employees juggling other pressures. "Both the qualitative data we have and the quantitative data show that this really reduces the stress on workers," Moen says. At Best Buy, young workers would come in later so they could exercise in the morning and, as a bonus, avoid traffic. People with young kids could work earlier and attend school activities in the late afternoon. Employees in the program got one hour more of sleep per night, on average, than employees in a traditional setting, Moen found.

A common reaction to ROWE is that it works only for certain workers, that it couldn't be applied to receptionists, fast-food workers, nurses, shop floor managers, teachers. Thompson counters that the type of work doesn't matter--the attitude of leadership does. It's true that a shop floor manager can't work from home. But maybe he can let his production crew choose their own shifts each week and trade between themselves without his approval. Maybe the administrative staff at a school can team up to pool the receptionist duties so that not everyone has to commute during rush hour.

"If you're in production, you can't do that outside of the office. Guess what? You need to be in the office," says Julie Cole, a cofounder of Mabel's Labels, an online seller of personalized labels for kid's gear. But, Cole added, if a print run is finished at 1 p.m., and the production shift is scheduled to end at 3 p.m., she doesn't want those production workers hanging around trying to look busy for two hours. "Go home," she says.

The firms that come to ROWE for help typically are looking for a way to differentiate themselves, sometimes in a way that won't involve a salary bidding war. That's what happened to the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, which provides school districts across rural Iowa with such services as special education and speech pathology. The Prairie Lakes region experienced a huge drop in public school enrollment over the last several years, which severely depleted the agency's resources. They needed to find a new way to operate.

"We were looking for something that would give us a competitive advantage," says Connie Johnson, marketing and communications director for the agency. "Someone close to us could hire an occupational therapist for $10,000 more than what we can offer. We have great people, and we don't want to lose them."

ROWE at the Prairie Lakes agency looks different than it does at JL Buchanan or Mabel's Labels. The agency's office is still open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and someone (but not everyone) needs to be there to respond to the public's needs. The most welcome change, Johnson says, was the elimination of meaningless practices, such as a requirement that therapists count their mileage to a school from the agency office, even if that destination was 50 miles closer to their home.

Because of union rules, the agency still has "leave days" and "work days." But employees' work can occur where it needs to, which eases stress on employees. "We had one guy whose dog needed to have ACL surgery. He didn't take any leave," Johnson says. "I can work from McDonald's. McDonald's has pretty good damn free WiFi."

Thompson openly admits that she and Ressler are trying to "start a revolution" about how people think about work. The ROWE way isn't about being "on" and "off." It's about having the ability to decide what "on" and "off" means, which may be different for each person. At Mabel's Labels, one employee took that idea and ran with it, literally, to another continent.

"A guy in our IT department went to Europe for three months on ROWE. He never missed a deadline. He did the work," Cole says. "He knew that if it wasn't working, he'd either lose his job or get the next flight from Amsterdam." That's not a bad way to see the world.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.