When Employees Can’t Be Trusted

There’s been a lot of buzz around results oriented work environments (ROWE) and the freedom and flexibility they allow in terms of employees setting their own hours and taking vacations. BusinessWeek is no exception, recently profiling the liberal vacation policies of the IT consulting firm, Bluewolf:

Michael Kirven, 38, and Eric Berridge, 39, didn’t worry about a vacation policy when they started Bluewolf, their New York IT consulting firm, in 2000. As the startup added employees, the founders let staff take paid time off for holidays, travel, and rest when they wanted, without asking permission—just letting managers know as a courtesy. About 18 months later, with 10 employees, they made their ad hoc policy official. “If you want to take a vacation, take it,” Kirven says. As long as workers met their goals, they could take as much time as they wanted, when they wanted. In other words, no formal vacation policy.

Unlimited paid vacation? Available anytime I want it? Amazing! What employee wouldn’t think this is a great idea?

Indeed, Bluewolf puts such faith in its employees to police themselves that they’ve eliminated the need for an HR department entirely:

Kirven says the company’s turnover is next to nil—so low that three people who left recently decided to return. Bluewolf has no HR staff. Instead, it relies on a quarterly audit from a lawyer to make sure the company complies with labor laws. And Kirven estimates the company saves $250,000 a year by not having bean-counters tracking time.

Most of the media articles on ROWE focus on the benefits of trusting employees and allowing the freedom to surf the net, take the afternoon off, or otherwise do whatever they please—as long as their work is being done.

But what none of these articles, blog posts or podcasts seem to address is how exactly do you create an environment where everyone is productive, trustworthy and responsible?

“Results only” work environments are only successful if each employee is assigned an individual, measurable set of requirements that are assigned a specific due date. It’s been my experience that most companies can barely define each employee’s job (I once worked for a year in position that had no formal job description), nor set reasonable, measurable goals for each of them. The foundation of ROWE is a competent management team that is able to both see the big picture and quantify it into doable steps. How many people can say that their managers successfully accomplish both of those things?

I’ve responded to several bloggers touting the benefits of ROWE and advocating that employees should be trusted to act responsibly. My question to them is always,

“What do you do if you give your employee all this freedom and they don’t perform?”

The unanimous answer is always,

“Fire them.”

Clearly, these bloggers have never had to deal with a poor performing employee, do the dirty work of firing someone, or ever worked in government.

Some people just aren’t self motivated. They need a boss looking over their shoulder (either figuratively or literally) to be productive. Could we argue that the lack of motivation these employees have is because they are in the wrong job? Maybe. But that is a reason for them to quit, not necessarily for a company to fire them. Isn’t it a manager’s job to ensure their employees have an environment which enables them to be most productive? That seems to be the argument for ROWE, but can also be applied to a structured work environment as well. Just look at how many lost, undisciplined souls have been “straightened out” by the military.

While I think ROWE workplaces are awesome places to work if you’re lucky enough and could have been tailor-made for people like me (ambitious type-As), I acknowledge that they might not be right for everyone and shouldn’t be touted as the panacea for unhappy workers that the media makes it out to be.
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5 responses »

  1. As a lazy person, I, too, have mixed feelings about this.

    It looks good on paper, but what are the results we need to get? I find that when I am at a job, I wind up taking on more and more responsibility.

    I agree with Newb that if the amount of work is more clearly defined, this is easier to pull off.

    I find, however, that it is less work to just come and hang around at an office for a few hours rather than to actually have to show something for all my time. This is why I get stressed when the boss takes vacation. There is the question, “what were you doing during this time?” Much easier not to answer it.

    Overall, I think that this move, is a good one.

    1. It forces companies to be more exact in what each person does. This is a big boost all ready.

    2. I have not had many good experiences with HR people so if you can do without them, then good.

    3. It expects employees to be adults which is good. I am an adult. I can do my work by a given deadline. To sit and pretend to be busy is a waste of everyone’s time: mine, the company, and the people I could be helping.

  2. This is an interesting idea, but one that I think would not hold very much ground in the situations I’ve encountered. I would have to say overall I agree with your post.

    I am an engineer and many project goals I have had are based on the standard GANTT chart, using Microsoft Project or something similar. These goals are often time based and deadlines are usually dependent on smaller goals set throughout. I guess my question would be, where do you draw the line when things go wrong or there is too much to do? Say your project team isn’t slacking off but there are just outside factors that cause you to miss deadlines. Is everyone fired? Is there a way to tell WHO has been doing work and who hasn’t?

    I would agree that sitting in an office for face-time when your work is complete can be silly (assuming you do not have a unreasonably easy workload). But I suppose that this type of policy is too extreme in many situations, mine included. Like all things, the ROWE idea must be done in moderation.

    Great post, I’ll be back!

  3. Neither can corporations. But at least this inspires loyalty, which goes a long way towards trustworthiness. There’s no one more loyal than someone who knows there’s no way they could have it that good anywhere else. True for marriage, true for work. Of course, there are some who would take advantage of it. Get rid of them. The rest will be the best employees you’ve ever had.

  4. I think ROWE is a great idea in theory but agree that it’s not for everyone. Some employees need structure…that’s not right or wrong…just different. If nothing else, organizations should focus more on results than marathon strategic planning sessions and staff meetings.

    I’m not sure ROWE inspires loyalty. In fact, a number of folks left google to start their own business even though they had a chance to spend 20% of their time each week on any project they wanted.

  5. Pingback: Queercents » Blog Archive » Why Work Sucks And How to Fix It

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