Want to Be a Great Leader? Avoid This Type of Work Culture

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By Dustin McKissen

Flexibility and autonomy are essential to attracting and retaining employees -millennials in particular - so a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) is the ultimate employee retention tool, right?

Maybe, but my experience working in a ROWE was a dismal failure, and contributed to an abnormally high turnover rate.

Here's what went wrong:

1. Employees felt like pets, not people.

A Results Only Work Environment, originally developed at retailer Best Buy, is different than telecommuting. Most telecommuting arrangements involve some form of fixed schedule, or at least a general expectation of when an employee will (and will not) be at work.

In a pure ROWE environment, there is no schedule. In the ROWE environment I worked in there were no vacation days or holidays either, because at least in theory an employee could take 5 vacation days a week, every week, so long as he or she could get the work done in the remaining time.

That wasn't the reality. The reality was that employees were expected to be available all the time, at the drop of a hat. Conference call at 10:00 PM? How can you object to that, if you've been spending quality time with your family all day?

Except you weren't spending time with your family. You were working. Even worse, the feeling of having to respond every time you were called made you feel more like a pet than a person. Most of us expect our dog to come when called, regardless of when or where we call him.

It's wrong to expect the same of employees.

2. It created a feeling of class struggle among employees.

ROWE environments may work for specific types of employees doing specific functions. However, if you are a customer service representative who is on the phone with customers all day, you can't really work in a ROWE environment.

For that customer service representative being available for a fixed set of hours are part of the results he or she is expected to deliver. However, our CEO was so enamored with the concept of ROWE that customer service representatives and other employees whose duties required them to be at the office for a fixed period of time were also included in the ROWE.

Like everyone else working under ROWE, these customer service representatives received no holiday or vacation time. Theoretically they had all the time they needed, but in reality they needed to be at their desk for a fixed number of hours. The result of all of this was one class of employees who could (and sometimes did) work 2 days a week, and another class of employees who worked every day, including holidays.

It was unbelievably misguided and unfair to apply the ROWE across the board, and if you are thinking about implementing this system, please know that it can't be applied to everyone.

3. A ROWE requires a stable foundation, which we did not have.

A true ROWE is extraordinarily flexible. As a result, it needs to be built on a solid, stable foundation. Implementing a ROWE without a solid foundation of expectations and defined policies and procedures is like trying to do a quadruple backflip off the world's largest halfpipe after just learning to skateboard yesterday.

Chances are good you will flame out in a hail of broken skateboard and expensive dental work.

And we did.

A ROWE requires a solid foundation of policies and procedures, and mature, experienced leadership at the very top - which we lacked. Even with stability and experience it is extraordinarily difficult to implement, as Best Buy acknowledged when it eventually abandoned the idea.

Want to be a great leader? Avoid a ROWE, and treat your employees like the human beings they are, and not a pet expected to respond to your beck and call.
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