Managing in a Results-Only Work Environment
Measuring Output, Not Presence
Imagine rolling in to work at 2 p.m. on a Monday, after spending the morning with your family. Only a few of your team members are at their desks, and no one asks where you were or why you're late.
You get right to work, focusing intensely until 8 p.m., and then you leave the office. Tomorrow, you plan to join a colleague at a local library to finish the project you started today. Once you've met your deadline, you'll be off for the rest of the week.
This scenario might sound like the sort of working arrangement only found at an innovative startup or progressive think tank. However, "results-only" cultures exist in many organizations around the world.
In this article, we'll look at what a results-only work environment (ROWE) is, when it's appropriate to use one, and how you can overcome some of the common management challenges that this working arrangement presents.
What Is a Results-Only Work Environment?
In a ROWE, you measure team members by their performance, results or output, not by their presence in the office or the hours that they work. You give them complete autonomy over their projects, and you allow them the freedom to choose when and how they will meet their goals.
Working in a results-only environmeant is not the same as having "flexible hours." The time your team members spend on a task is irrelevant; only their results matter. (This is similar to the relationship many managers have with "freelancers" who are paid solely for the work that they deliver.)
Benefits of the Results-Only Approach
One of the main benefits of working in a ROWE is the freedom and flexibility that it provides. People are able to complete work in their own time, as long as they meet their deadlines. This means that they can take breaks and attend appointments without having to take time off – this can be particularly useful for working parents, and it can help to avoid a stressful commute.
This approach works particularly well with team members who need to deliver an easily measurable, standardized piece of work to a deadline and an agreed quality. It allows people to focus on one project or task at a time, and it gives them freedom to complete their work as they see fit.
The focus is on results and goals. This means that team members are clear about what they need to achieve, and how this contributes to the organization's objectives as a whole.
Challenges With the Results-Only Approach
As you might imagine, a ROWE is not appropriate in all situations. For example, it doesn't work in many customer service departments, where team members need to be available at predictable times to answer customer queries – in this situation, replying to voicemails just isn't acceptable.
A ROWE can cause serious problems in environments where each piece of work is unique and difficult to scope out in fine detail in advance. It can also be unsuitable for new or inexperienced people, as they need immediate, regular support, guidance and mentoring, without having to wait for scheduled, face-to-face meetings.
If a ROWE is appropriate, you have to be sure that people will complete tasks to the agreed deadline and quality, regardless of whether they work at the office or at home, during business hours or late at night.
People need to understand what you expect of them and what they're responsible for, so they know what they need to achieve. You need to ensure that deadlines are realistic, but also you need to ensure people don't exaggerate how long a project should take.
A ROWE can also present a number of challenges within a team, as people may struggle to communicate and collaborate with colleagues who don't work set, predictable hours. Again, this makes life difficult for new or inexperienced people, who need to learn from more experienced coworkers.
Ressler and Thompson argue that a ROWE is appropriate in all workplaces, but many disagree. Use your own best judgment when considering implementing one with your team.
Overcoming the Challenges of a Results-Only Work Environment
Below, we've outlined six strategies that you can use to overcome some of the most common challenges to managing in a ROWE.
1. Recruit Professional, Conscientious People
Before you consider implementing a ROWE, it's essential that you recruit the people who will give your team the best chance of success.
As part of the recruitment process, look for conscientious, focused and professional people who you can trust, and who have experience working as part of a virtual team. Unfocused, sloppy or unprofessional people will be particularly ineffective in this type of environment.
Make it clear that their focus will be on results, and that the time they spend on tasks is irrelevant.
2. Build Trust
Although trust is important to a successful ROWE, you shouldn't rely completely on it. You need to be able to trust your team members to fulfill their part of the bargain, and to complete the work that they are hired to do, but you also need to make sure that people are motivated to achieve their goals, that systems are set up to support and monitor this, and that people are fairly compensated for delivering results.
Take steps to build trust right from the start. One way to achieve this is to talk openly with your people about your questions and fears. As you do this, reassure everyone that you're there to support them, and be clear about how you will monitor their performance.
Team members also need to be able to trust each other. Build trust within your team by encouraging people to socialize after work, and by asking about their friends, family and hobbies when you're all together. These informal conversations help you to see people as individuals, and find common ground. Use the Johari Window to guide self-disclosure, and encourage your team members to get to know each other (and you) better.
3. Clearly Define Job Descriptions
Your team members need to understand the roles that you've hired them for. So, start by writing a clear job description for each of them. As you review their responsibilities, it may become clear that a ROWE isn't appropriate, and that a more traditional, structured work environment is better.
If a ROWE is a sensible choice, focus only on the work that your team members are responsible for as you write their job descriptions, and avoid defining how they should accomplish their goals. Remember, a ROWE is all about autonomy, so specify what each person is there to achieve.
Look carefully at your organization's policies and processes, and make sure that they don't unnecessarily dictate how team members should perform tasks. Whenever possible, let people use their own best judgment to manage their work.
4. Consistently Set Clear, Measurable Goals
You measure a person's performance in a ROWE by how well they meet the goals and objectives that you give them.
This means that your most important priority is to set appropriate goals for each team member. It can be time-consuming to set SMART goals regularly, so, wherever possible, ensure that goals are "automatic." For example, "Deliver this piece of work to this deadline, as recorded in this schedule, then pick up the next project on the list."
Remember, include specific metrics and clear expected outcomes, so that people know how you will evaluate their performance.
Discuss the performance metrics you came up with, and make sure they agree that these are fair and balanced.
5. Monitor Performance
It's particularly important in a ROWE to stay on top of each person's progress, because you may not work closely with them. So, ask them how they would like to keep you up to date. Chances are, most people will be happy to check in daily or weekly – daily stand-up or scrum meetings provide a great format for this, and they can even work virtually.
Always be clear with team members about when you expect them to complete a task or project, and remind them that it's their responsibility to let you know in advance if they won't finish on time. However, it's your job to take appropriate action if someone is regularly missing deadlines – it's easy for people to make excuses in this type of environment, and you'll need to push back vigorously if someone does – otherwise team productivity will crash.
Also, some people might be tempted to "rush" their work to make more time for personal pursuits, so you need to put measures in place to monitor quality. If you notice an increase in sloppy work, remind your team that you intend to measure their results, and that high-quality work is an objective. Be honest and specific about what you see, use the Stop – Keep Doing – Start tool to provide clear, targeted feedback, and take steps to deal with poor performance if necessary.
Team members might also take the freedom of a ROWE too far in the opposite direction, and work too many hours. So, make it clear that time spent and physical attendance no longer affect their performance appraisal. If you suspect that someone is burning out, talk with them one-on-one about their situation. They might only need a reminder that it's their results, not their presence, that matters.
6. Ensure That Your People Work as a Team
Communication and spontaneous brainstorming can suffer if a team is geographically dispersed and works at different times. Get your people together regularly, and spend time keeping people up-to-date. Also, do what you can to encourage new ideas and creativity, and make generating these an objective for each person.
Next, identify the resources that your team members need to do their job effectively. This might be technology, knowledge or another person's help. Do what you can to provide the necessary resources and training.
A results-only work environment gives team members complete freedom to do their jobs how and when they see fit, as long as they produce agreed results to specified deadlines.
This can work well with experienced, conscientious, professional people. However, this approach may not be appropriate in all situations, especially with new or inexperienced teams, unpredictable projects, or roles that require people to be available during specified hours.
To manage a team successfully in this culture, make sure that you build a solid foundation of trust, and define job descriptions so that everyone understands what they're there to do.
The most important part of working successfully in a ROWE is setting clear, meaningful and measurable goals for your people, and monitoring their performance. Discuss this with them individually, and make sure they agree that each one is relevant and fair.
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