Freedom at Work
Jody Thompson, ROWE creator and co-author of “Why Managing Sucks,” on expanding freedom at work.
Expanding Freedom at Work
So much of the conversation in business is about power: what you control (“I run a $200 million piece of the business”), who you control (“My 350 direct reports”), and how you control (org charts, pay grades, policy manuals). Of course, power and control are spectacularly subpar strategies for unleashing human imagination, initiative, and passion—all those qualities every organization needs in abundance in order to thrive in the Creative Economy.
So what is the right strategy? What does it mean to manage an organization and lead people without control as your power tool? One obvious, but far from easy, answer: unleash more freedom.
We’ve experienced such an expansion in our personal freedom over the last decade. We have the freedom to connect with anyone anywhere in the world, the freedom to contribute and to make a real impact on the basis of merit rather than permission, the freedom to create and express oneself, the freedom to challenge, to speak up, to push back, to rise up.
Yet, at work, most of us are hemmed in by rules, boundaries, and budgets—all designed to keep us in our place, and most based on the assumption that we can’t be trusted to behave like responsible adults. It’s astonishing that the same grown-up who can go out on a weekend and buy a car or sign up for a mortgage, must obtain multiple permissions to procure a new desk chair or try out a new technology back at work.
That doesn’t just make work dispiriting, it puts organizations at a real disadvantage. If you want your organization to be as adaptable, innovative, and engaging as it needs to be to meet the future, individuals need freedom. People need the elbowroom to ignore the hierarchy, roam beyond their job description, and make small bets. They also need the headroom to pursue their passions, experiment with new ideas, and challenge conventional thinking.
Freedom is not a luxury, it’s not a privilege to be granted from on high. It’s a basic right of all working adults.
That’s the point of departure for one of the most radical, ongoing experiments in combatting the 20th century organizational ideology of control and the deeply embedded management practices that support it. ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) is the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former HR leaders at Best Buy, who rocked the working world ten years ago with their stealth experiment in total autonomy.
The ROWE approach attacks head-on what most “alternative work arrangements” only tip-toe around: the fact that we’re literally laboring under a myth (namely, time put in + physical presence + elbow grease = RESULTS). Our assumptions about how work works, where we work, and when we work are relics of the industrial age. That’s not a new problem. ROWE finally addresses it.
The basic principle: people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Period.
You can come in at 2pm on Tuesday. Leave at 3pm on Friday. Go grocery shopping at 10am on Wednesday. Take a nap or go to the movies anytime. Do your work while following your favorite band around the country. The ROWE “13 Commandments” say it all—here are a few:
--Work isn’t a place you go, it’s something you do.
--Employees have the freedom to work any way they want
--Every meeting is optional
--Nobody talks about how many hours they work
--No judgment about how you spend your time
All of this freedom might seem like a recipe for chaos, but it turns out that autonomy breeds accountability. At Best Buy, the divisions working in ROWE saw, on average, a 35% boost in productivity, a 52-90% decrease in voluntary turnover, a welcome reduction in the number of meetings, and a remarkable improvement in collaboration, teamwork, and employee engagement (not to mention boosts in other “soft” metrics such as energy level, hours of sleep, and family time).
ROWE quickly became the poster child for a new approach to tired “flex time” and telework. Ressler and Thompson moved on from Best Buy a couple years after they launched ROWE there in order to spread the practice to organizations around the world. While it’s thriving inside a range of organizations, such as the Gap, municipal government offices, and advertising agencies, Best Buy’s new CEO Hubert Joly recently canceled the program in a bid to regain (what else?) control in the midst of tough times for the retailer.
Which begs the question: is freedom only a strategy for boom times—or is it a powerful force when it comes to making our organizations fit for the future? In this Maverick Hangout, we unpack what it takes to make radical autonomy work at work, build a company of intrinsically-motivated, switched on people, and see real results with ROWE creator and co-author of “Why Managing Sucks,” Jody Thompson.