Goodbye ROWE: Best Buy Ends Flex Work Program It Was Famous For

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All things must pass, as George Harrison once observed, and so it is with Best Buy’s famous Results Only Work Environment, known simply as ROWE.

According to the Minneapolis StarTribune:

Best Buy Co. said Monday it has ended its program that allowed corporate employees to control their schedules and how often they showed up at the company’s Richfield headquarters.

Known as Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), the company evaluated employees solely on performance versus time worked and office attendance. Employees worked when they wanted and wherever they wanted just as long as they got the job done.”

Lots of talk about ROWE, but who adopted it?

Best Buy, a company that has struggled mightily the last few years due to a combination of poor management and changing consumer retailing preferences, was on the cutting edge of workplace practices when Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson created ROWE back in 2005.

It’s premise was delightfully simple —  it didn’t matter where or how long your employees worked as long as you got the desired results out of them.

Yes, this was the ultimate flexible work environment that Best Buy embraced at their corporate headquarters in Minnesota, and it made Ressler and Thompson rock stars of the talent management world. They went on to form their own HR consulting company (CultureRx) as well as becoming fixtures on the HR conference circuit talking about the wonders of ROWE.

But as my colleague Lance Haun observed back in 2010, there seemed to be a lot more talk about than business adoption of ROWE. As he wrote in 5 Good Reasons Why ROWE Hasn’t Quite Caught on Yet,

I love the idea (of ROWE). And it even works in some environments. That is amazing in and of itself because it is such a paradigm shift. But to call it a revolution like the Star Tribune called it last year is more home cooking and less about being data based.

NPR reported that 3 percent of companies were using ROWE in their workplace but that doesn’t give any indication as to the number of employees covered by the progressive workplace management system. If you believe (like I do) that smaller businesses are naturally more capable of deploying a program like this, a fraction of a percent of employees would be covered under that plan.”

Best Buy now needs “all hands on deck”

I don’t know that ROWE was ever adopted by more than the 3 percent of the American companies that NPR identified back in 2010, and despite all the great press Best Buy got for it, ROWE  had one little problem. It “did not apply to Best Buy’s store employees, who make up the lion’s share of the retailer’s 168,000-person global workforce,” as the StarTribune pointed out this week.

That’s why ROWE going away at Best Buy will not matter all that much, because it didn’t impact a huge amount of its employee base, anyway.

Many will want to tie the end of ROWE at Best Buy to Melissa Mayer’s recent decision to end flexible work arrangements at Yahoo, and there may be some truth to that, because even some of the language from Best Buy’s announcement sounds much like what Yahoo said.

“It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done,” Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman told the StarTribune. “Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

I’m sure the need for “all hands on deck” is as critical at Best Buy as it is at Yahoo, but this feels like a decision that Best Buy was planning to make that probably made sense to announce in the wake of Yahoo’s announcement.

After all, there is likely to be less gnashing of teeth for the end of ROWE at Best Buy after Yahoo has already offered itself up as media cannon fodder for making the case that sometimes, in some companies, flex work needs to take a backseat to business survival.

ROWE and the ongoing debate about flex work

The fact of the matter is that ROWE is a great program that a lot more people talked about than embraced or utilized, and Lance Haun made this very clear back in 2010 when he wrote:

Nobody is sending out press releases when they discontinue using ROWE , or when they let a test of it simply die, so it is hard to get a sense as to how often companies get a negative result from using ROWE. However,  you would assume that if it were so brilliant, easy to sell to management, and fantastically simple to implement that it would be going like gangbusters throughout Corporate America.

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It isn’t. What has to change for that to happen, or is ROWE simply not going to survive?”

I’m not willing to say ROWE isn’t going to survive, but Yahoo opened Pandora’s Box and got much of working America into the debate over whether flexible work arrangements really make sense everywhere, all the time.

ROWE will stick around in some places, for some companies, but it was never the be-all, end-all flexible work program for everyone. Circumstances change, and they have at Best Buy just as they have at Yahoo.

Yes, when it is business survival you’re talking about, it makes sense that programs like ROWE take a backseat to the simple but unmistakeable urgency of “all hands on deck.”

As much as I like flex work, I’ll take business survival over working from home just about any day.

  • Scott Span

    John,
    Good points. Though the Best Buy environment is somewhat different than Yahoo, as are the specific changes to their policy. Per ROWE, I worked with a client in the Federal government who was participating in the pilot prior to OPM doing away with the program. Overall, I think it is a good methodology, however it takes a certain type pf culture willing to embrace it and provide the resources and proper execution for success. Implementing something like ROWE is a true transformational change. Per the Best Buy decision I’m inclined to agree, the Yahoo news did provide good cover for them to make the policy change, however why? Will they release before and after data specifically linking telecommuting to productivity and customer service issues? Or will they pull a Yahoo (I saw the chatter on the VPN data they released but I don’t think that’s enough). Yes, Best Buy may be struggling (even though stock is up), however I think some of their organizational issues are much more related to their business model than telecommuting. Another example of a company, that perhaps, is choosing to focus on something they may consider easy (like doing away with telecommuting) instead of looking at larger possible issues.

  • TNoebel

    Wait, you mean each business has to make it’s own decisions about how they manage their workforce in a manner that best meets the needs of the organization in a fluid, dynamic manner to address changing circumstances of fluid, dynamic marketplaces? That’ll never catch on.

  • http://twitter.com/SSpanTolero Scott Span, MSOD

    @d5ea02347c37726dcbf752abed2af22c:disqus Ah, but the key is basing said decisions on facts and data that support the changing policies will have a positive impact on best meeting the needs of the organization. Like the expression goes, organizations are like snowflakes. Change because it’s catchy, or change for the sake of change…and nothing will change.

  • Rich Boberg

    It appears the work from home fad is starting to end. I don’t believe it is an effective policy except in certain and limited circumstances. My experiences with allowing work from home have all ended poorly

  • C.M.S.

    Well… getting rid of ROWE will certainly make it harder for SOME employees to “sneak” out during the day to go out and “play.” If Best Buy only knew how many employees were sneaking out to see prostitutes, visit massage parlors, etc., they would be very surprised.

  • http://twitter.com/Frannyo Franny Oxford

    ROWE requires three things – a) a fairly stable company strategy in a fairly stable market, b) the ability and willingness of managers to be very clear about how each job adds value against that strategy, and enumerate each and every task that goes into that job’s success, and c) the ability and willingness of managers to manage, manage, manage. Manage expectations going into ROWE, manage results proactively and through continuous review, and manage activities, if and when the results are slipping or are not to evolving standards.
    That is HARD WORK from a management standpoint. And only works when the environment makes it relatively easy. Neither BestBuy nor Yahoo are in the right phase of their business, nor in the right market, to pull this off right now. I think they’re both right to pull it. They can’t make it work with their current environment, or their current management talent and infrastructure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jcfretts Jeremy Fretts

    You used “Flex work” and ROWE synonymously. They are not synonymous. My company has a “flex work” policy, but it depends on establishing a schedule, having it approved, etc., and it doesn’t apply to the whole workforce. (ironically, it EXCLUDES management) ROWE is focused on work accomplished by autonomous trusted employees, not when you shift your still-routine schedule to. While ROWE may not be appropriate for many businesses–Best Buy among them, as you point out –there are a hell of a lot who ought to try it.