By: April Joyner
Jody Thompson, the creator of Best Buy’s flexible work program, talks about why the company’s move to eliminate it is a bad idea.
News that Yahoo will begin requiring employees to come to the office five days a week has sparked a heated debate over workplace flexibility. Now Best Buy has entered the fray, announcing this week that it would end its workplace flexibility program, known as the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler developed ROWE in 2004 when they were HR managers at Best Buy. In 2008, Thompson and Ressler launched their own consulting firm, CultureRx, which has trained some 50 companies in adopting results-only work environments. Thompson recently spoke with Inc. senior reporter April Joyner about Best Buy’s decision and why she believes a flexible work environment gives companies an advantage, even in difficult times.
How is a results-only work environment different from telecommuting?
Telework, working from home–any program like that is managed flexibility. What that means is, I’m supposed to be in the office from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, but I want to be flexible, so I have to ask for permission from my boss. In a results-only working environment, you’re free to do whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as you get your job done.
Have you seen other cases where a results-only model needed to be modified or suspended when companies, like Best Buy and Yahoo, are facing difficulties?
A results-only work environment facilitates improving results, because that’s what it’s all about. There’s a deeper problem going on here with organizations like Best Buy and Yahoo. What they need to be doing is having objective conversations about the work, not subjective conversations about where people need to work. In a results-only work environment, the only thing you can take away from somebody is their job, because they’re not producing results.
Can this approach work for any company?
A results-only environment works for every single person on the planet. It’s not a flexibility program. It involves thinking about your work and how to accomplish it, and then being where you need to be to make that happen. Now, you might say, “What about a bus driver?” Well, if the bus driver doesn’t give you his route, and the people aren’t happy, then he hasn’t achieved his results. There’s always a measure of results, and you hold people accountable to that outcome. We’ve worked with companies in child care, manufacturing, a nursing home, education. It works anywhere.
What about the idea that communication happens more easily and spontaneously when people are in the same room?
Here’s all I have to say: Skype, instant messaging, texting, Google Hangouts, Facebook. The whole idea of the water-cooler conversation is very, very outdated. Today, the water cooler is virtual. We’re Skyping, we’re IM-ing, we’re texting, we’re moving ideas around as fast as the speed of light. When you tell someone the only way they can be spontaneous is in the office, you look like a fool, especially to the next generation. Tell someone that’s 22 years old that they have to come into an office to be spontaneous. Come on.
Do employees give notice that they’ll be out of the office?
You’re never out of an office, because you have email, and you can get email from anywhere. That’s one of the hardest things for people to get over, when we’re doing training for organizations. We’re so trained to tell our boss where we are, and that’s a big hurdle. Once you stop doing it, everyone feels like an adult, because now they’re focused on what matters–getting work done and interfacing with people in a way that makes sense. The office is not the default location, so you don’t feel guilty.
A New York Times story suggested that telecommuting dampened Yahoo’s office culture. Do employees in companies that adopt ROWE ever find social interactions lacking?
When you’re used to being in an office and seeing people every day, and you all of a sudden have this different sort of freedom, people start to become closer to the people that they want to be close to. So instead of having my workplace be my family, my family gets to be my family. People have told us that they become closer to their kids, their friends. The people at work, you still have a relationship with them, but they don’t have to be your friends. You have to have professional relationships, but I don’t need to know everything about your kids.
It sounds a bit transactional.
It does, but people are social. Because you’re not forced together every day, all day long, relationships with co-workers actually get better. When I was in the office every day, there were some people I really liked, but some days they drove me nuts, because they kept stopping by, they kept interrupting me. But when you have the ability to interface with someone on your own terms, you can have coffee, you can have lunch–but you get to decide that.
Will companies continue to embrace workplace flexibility?
We’re working with organizations in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. There are organizations all over the world now that are understanding that the future is not about the workplace, but creating a workforce. It’s not about managing people, but managing work. Best Buy is making a big mistake, because they’re going to treat everyone like children who have to ask, “Captain, may I?” But they’re still not going to be clear about results.