Next time you need to buy a television or a computer and you hop down to the local Best Buy to make the purchase, remind yourself that this isn’t an ordinary shopping expedition. You are heading into the belly of a workplace revolution.
Back in 2002 Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson were both human resources managers at Best Buy, back then a ferociously face-time, eight-to-five, Monday-through-Friday kind of place. But Thompson, a boomer, and Ressler, a Gen Xer, saw that the world outside the company fences was changing—becoming less static. And they saw also that the old-fashioned culture at Best Buy just wasn’t working for them.
So they started dreaming of a workplace that would suit them and the new global environment. It would be a workplace where no one has to get permission to watch their kids’ weekday soccer game. A workplace where people aren’t promoted because they arrive early and stay late. A workplace where there is no when or where—just “how well.” A workplace where performance is measured solely on the basis of results and not hours at the office.
Their dream is now a reality called ROWE—Results-Only Work Environment. In a ROWE you control where, when, and how long you work. So long as you meet your professional objectives, the way you spend your time is entirely your decision.
Ressler and Thompson knew they couldn’t just go to their CEO and trot out their vision, so they met in private and rolled out ROWE by stealth. They organized tiny pilots and waited for an opportunity to go bigger. In 2003 they got that chance, and since then, in a remarkably short time, these two pioneering women have radically changed the Fortune 500 megacompany into a worker-friendly haven. They have given employees far more than flexibility—they have also given them freedom. Their clock-less, schedule-less, boundary-less system of working has radically changed lives. Now ROWEs have spread throughout the company.
“When Jody and I first came up with ROWE, we were focused on the corporate office environment, but today we’re actually on the verge of beginning work with Best Buy retail to figure out how this will look in the retail stores. ROWE is not about not going to a workplace; it’s about having control over your time. There are things in every environment that just don’t make sense anymore, and they’re making people stressed-out and feel like children, so we know that there’s a huge opportunity outside the office environment for this,” explains Cali Ressler.
Workers at Best Buy say they no longer know if they work fewer hours; they don’t really care, and they’ve stopped counting. But they are much happier, and they are more productive. Right across the company, departments that adopted the ROWE revolution saw productivity rise by an average of 40 percent.
“At first, we took this on faith—that people wanted to be treated like adults, they wanted to be trusted to do their work in a way that makes sense for them, and that people would really step up to the plate if left free to do their work the way they thought best, not the way the company let them do it,” says Jody Thompson.
“I don’t come in to the office at eight and leave at five, there’s no way. I have two mornings from about 8 a. m. until 1 p. m. where I’m not in the office at all because I’m studying for a master’s,” says Christy Runningen, of Best Buy. “I didn’t ask for permission, and nobody cares. I still get my job done, and I’m happier and more productive than ever.”
Naturally, Jody and Cali encountered hurdles. They’ve had to deal with old-fashioned managers who refused to cede control, with naysayers who said that it would never work and that productivity would plummet. The biggest concern for some managers was that employees would abuse the system— yet, overwhelmingly, that hasn’t happened. Actually ROWE makes it easier, says Thompson, not harder, to see if associates are genuinely pulling their weight rather than just spending long hours in the office.
“The only way that you can scam a results-only work environment is to not get your job done,” explains Thompson. “And, really, what happens on teams is that people who aren’t pulling their weight weren’t doing it before. In ROWE, it becomes really evident, and people are managed strictly on performance, so if somebody’s not holding up their end, it becomes really clear. But they could just skate by and put in time in a traditional work environment.”
Cali and Jody are now national advocates for their system— they are working with another Fortune 150 retailer and a Fortune 100 technology company that are in the process of becoming ROWEs, and a host of smaller companies have already made the transition.
But how can a ROWE possibly work in this economy? Best Buy, like so many retailers, has been struggling with sales, so will this freedom evaporate? On the contrary. Cali and Jody say because the system has actually increased productivity and often lowered fixed costs like real estate, it’s actually expanding. “There is a huge competitive advantage baked in to ROWE in tough economic times because when leadership expects teams to ‘tighten their belt,’ everyone is able to voice whether activities are adding value or whether they’re wasting time. Nobody wants wasted capacity in good times, but in tough times there is NO room for waste,” Cali told us. “ROWE employees know how to get results and are relentlessly focused on that.”
Deloitte and Touche
Anne Weisberg and Cathleen Benko of Deloitte and Touche were heavily focused on how to hang on to their valuable female workforce as the nation heads into a talent shortage. Even in an economic downturn, the fundamentals of America’s demographics still apply. Over the next few years, the country will need productive talent to revive and expand its economy but a deficit of well-qualified labor still looms. For Deloitte, with a huge female workforce, it’s a real structural problem. Weisberg and Benko came up with Mass Career Customization, thanks to an epiphany they had one day that just seemed obvious: if products can now be customized en masse, why not careers?
Every employee at Deloitte, not just women, now continually adjusts key aspects of their career. You can work less, work from different places, shoulder more or less responsibility. Basically, you can choose when to “dial up” and when to “dial down,” with the knowledge that dialing up will get you promoted faster, and dialing down will slow promotions. Benko says what is so critical about the program is the attempt to standardize the idea of a flexible workplace. It removes the individual deal-making for flexible working conditions, which Benko said was creating confusion at Deloitte.
“We found that many people didn’t like the old system,” she says. “People would often say ‘I just feel guilty or I feel like I’m letting my team down.’ And we were also hearing, ‘Am I eligible for the next level? Can I still get promoted?’ ”
Tom Mars is a present-day Johnny Appleseed on the subject of flexibility. As executive vice president and chief administrative officer of a behemoth-like Wal-Mart, he can change minds by planting ideas around the country, and he can use company muscle to force the business world to pay attention. Much as Wal-Mart’s become a major player on the issue of sustainability, it’s set to engender substantial change on the issue of flexibility. “Just a few years ago I was pretty dismissive of the idea of flextime,” he admits ruefully. “I’m embarrassed at how shallow my thinking was. I think my attitudes were fairly typical of a lot of people. When anybody would raise it with me, I would think privately, ‘We’re trying to run a law department here.’ ”
But when he has an epiphany, Mars moves fast. A few years ago, when he was general counsel, he looked around at his almost all-white, all-male legal team after attending a legal diversity conference and decided to shake things up. Within a few years, the Wal-Mart legal department employed more than 40 percent women and more than 35 percent lawyers of color. That’s a move he feels has so benefited the quality of the company’s legal work that he’s consistently used the $250 million worth of annual legal business the company does with other law firms to demand change. Wal-Mart noticed almost all of the relationship partners on their top 100 accounts were white men—so Mars asked for more women and minorities. Wal – Mart ended up moving $60 million in annual revenue to new women and minority relationship partners, converting their white male counterparts into the new minority group. And when Mars wasn’t satisfied that several of Wal-Mart’s outside law firms were embracing diversity, he dropped their business.
“You can understand that’s just not the attitude we like in people representing our company around the country,” Mars explains, in a folksy aw-shucks style that must have made his willingness to use the company’s big stick something of a shock to these unenlightened firms.
As he was being feted for those achievements, Mars started reading information about why women have such a hard time making it through the ranks at law firms and companies. It was a lack of flexibility.
“I thought a lot about this, and frankly, I just decided to do it. I came in to the next staff meeting and told my team we needed to do it quickly and without bureaucracy, and to come up with a good policy within thirty days.” He grins.
Today the legal team at the company works without any time boundaries.
“With the exception of a handful of bona fide workaholics, everybody takes advantage of the program. Everybody leaves during the week to go to soccer games and the like. Somebody reported to me recently they went to go see a movie,” Mars says happily. “Our office has had a policy that office hours begin at seven-thirty, but nobody pays attention now. I run into a lawyer who comes into the building at 10 a. m., and frankly, the cool thing about it is I don’t know if they’re coming into work or if they’ve already been here and are coming back again. We just don’t think about it anymore.”
Wal-Mart also gives the 160 lawyers in the department the ability to cut back hours, or work from home a number of days week. Is he worried about clients or image or anything like that if an employee is with her children from three to seven, and then starts work again in the evening?
“In emergencies we’re all flexible. But that’s not common. These days I always tell people,” he says with a shrug, “we’re running a law department, not a fire department.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that no matter how you measure morale, it’s considerably higher than it ever was before,” Mars concludes. “The element of trust that was introduced when we installed flextime has made not only happier people but better lawyers. They have a greater willingness to do their jobs, and to do them with appropriate independence.”
Treat employees like grown-ups and we act like grown-ups. It’s revolutionary.
By the way, Tom’s innovation in Wal-Mart’s legal department has caught the eye of other departments across the company, and many are moving to implement the changes wholesale. We love to emphasize the power of one, your power to affect change as an individual woman. Think of this as the power of one as well—one man who made big waves with his goliath of a company. Bravo.