How IBM does the Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE)

There is an experiment at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to change how government works. The idea is to stop measuring how much time an employee spends at the office but rather to measure how productive the employee is. The employee sets their own working hours and negotiates with their supervisor on what they should be producing and how it will be measured. It is a revolutionary concept and has worked in private industry.

A great example of this is how IBM has reinvented itself to use a ROWE-like environment. As Robert Paterson explains, IBM employees can live where they want and work in virtual teams based on their own schedules. What holds the workforce together is the use of social networking tools and the occasional face-to-face meeting. As Paterson writes, “If IBM can do this with 200,000 people so can you.”

One aspect that he mentions is the use of chat tools in place of meetings. This is not revolutionary as places I have worked at have using instant messaging systems to hold impromptu meetings. You can quickly get to the point, bring in people as needed, and there is a record of the meeting when you are finished. And this was easily done with 2001 technology. I do not understand why more organizations don’t hold meetings this way instead of dragging everyone into the conference room for the weekly staff meeting.

Another great example from IBM is how well the virtual team works even though employees are in different countries and different time zones. Allowing people to work at their natural productive hours means you will have better work and happier people. An interesting point in the IBM experience is that face-to-face meetings are used to help workers build trust and tend to be about team-building rather than doing work. I wonder how much more effective government workers would be if agencies devoted substantial time to team-building?

ROWE solves a lot of problems from the time wasted to commuting to balancing work-life issues. I’m hoping the OPM experiment is a success. ROWE is clearly working in the private sector.

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Eileen Roark

Bill, yes you’re right, ROWE is a revolutionary concept but it cannot be applied across the board for the entire govt workforce. Specifically, it will not work for DOD or the Intelligence Community (IC). A large percentage of DOD civilian employees have military supervisors who expect them to be at their desks, not out in some virtual world. You don’t “negotiate” duty hours and production with military supervisors. They want you where they can see you, and if you’re not, you’re either AWOL or goofing off somewhere, and the only “revolution” they relate to is 1776. You have no idea what it took for some DOD agencies to even adopt Alternate Work Schedules (AWS). Supervisors in my (former) agency fought the AWS battle and lost. AWS was finally implemented, but that doesn’t mean they like it. It robs them of their real-time ability to control their workers. Besides, depending on the mission, some agencies must be able to get hold of their people fast. Much the same mindset in the IC, but obviously, they can’t take their work home so ROWE is a non-starter. Yes, I think the gov should roll out ROWE where appropriate, but they would still be excluding a large number of workers and I don’t think that’s fair.

Michael Lennon

I am a huge fan of engaging staff around agreed goals and empowering them to achieve the goal. However, ROWE is not a panacea by any means.

Among the adverse impacts of a virtual team model (at least as I personally experienced at IBM) was the knowledge-sharing, trust levels and connection/community-forming suffered when people who previously met at the water cooler/lunchroom/elevator, no longer were co-located. Unfortunately, it is easier to quantify the costs of office space than it is to measure trust and collaboration.

Another unintended effect of measuring success at the level of the individual was that since sales were measured at the level of the individual sales persons, clients reported having an experience of the left-hand not knowing (or caring) what the right-hand was doing. Individual salespersons needed to meet their individual sales goals –goals which were not always the optimal interest of the individual client.

Food for thought.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Eileen – Speaking for myself and not for anyone at OPM (I am in no way connected to the current ROWE experiment): I agree with you. It is going to take a major change in cultures in all the agencies. And some workers, by necessity, will not be able to take part in ROWE which does raise issues of equity. I don’t know what the proposed solutions are but I think one benefit for the workers who are not in ROWE can enjoy more work space and better IT support thanks to fewer workers in the building. Clearly, more work needs to be done in implementing ROWE.

@Michael: I agree with you also on the necessity for trust and collaboration. In the blog posting about IBM, the author does mention face-to-face meetings to build trust. Your experience does contradict that evidence. And you are also correct about the conflict of organizational goals and individual goals. Clearly, measuring results under ROWE will take coordination on all levels.

Thank you both for the great points!

Sunni M.

I like the idea of using chat tools. Our organization doesn’t do it, but I can definitely see the value if you have team members who work offsite.