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The Advantages of ROWE: Why Employees Who Don’t Go to Work Are More Productive


At some point in each of our working lives, we’ve been forced to clock in at a specific time, take a lunch break that is exactly a half hour, or been told when and where we can take a 10-minute break. Some of us have only been allowed to use the restroom at specific times; others, perhaps have been reprimanded or worse, lost a job, if we couldn’t make it in during a snow or sick day. Working for companies like these is more than demoralizing — it’s unproductive. ROWE (results only work environment) is an alternative management strategy that focuses on results, not rules.

(Photo Credit: Craig Garner/

The Impetus for Improvement: Workplace Sludge

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“Sludge is any comment that’s meant to make a co-worker feel guilty about process rather than results,” write Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in their new book, Why Work S*cks and How to Fix It. “For example: ‘Nice of you to join us, Judy,’ when Judy arrives at the office a little late in the morning. Or: ‘I wish I had kids like Bill. He never has to be at work,’ when Bill leaves early to see his daughter’s school play. These sorts of comments reinforce an outdated view of the relationship between a knowledge worker’s time spent at a desk and his overall productivity.” (H/t, Jezebel.)

In these situations, managers don’t care about results — they simply care that you show up and, for better or worse, “look busy.” Weight is also placed more on your relationships with co-workers than your productivity levels.

Of course, getting along with others matters — it’s a golden rule we all learned in kindergarten, and more companies now integrate “culture fit” tests into the interview process to ensure that new hires will, in fact, get along with their new coworkers.

(Not) Getting Things Done

But are managers placing too much weight on simply showing up to the office, to the detriment of productivity? A recent study from Gallup shows that less than one-third of employees in the U.S. are actually engaged at the office, failing to actually be productive during the day.

“Gallup reported in two large-scale studies in 2012 that only 30% of U.S. employees are engaged at work, and a staggeringly low 13% worldwide are engaged worldwide.. Worse, over the past 12 years these low numbers have barely budged, meaning that the vast majority of employees worldwide are failing to develop and contribute at work,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

This was true across all industries, sizes of business, and geographic locations. In addition, inconsistent metrics across organizations and between companies make it hard to measure performance or manage people consistently.

A Better Plan — With More Productivity

So how can employees be more productive? One alternative is ROWE, which focuses on results, not schedules or rules or face-time. ROWE was developed in 2003 by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson when they developing new human resources guidelines at Best Buy. According to Slate, under this plan, employees were given 100 percent autonomy and 100 percent accountability. Didn’t think you needed to be at a meeting? You didn’t need to show up. 

Thompson told Slate that reactions to ROWE have been mixed.

“We were letting people run free like unicorns. We were also shining a bright light on the people who’d previously been able to hide inside the system by showing up every day without actually accomplishing much.”

Thompson also describes the results: “Something happens to you when you feel like an adult again at work. It’s the control, but it’s also the clarity on top of it. I now need to know what my results are supposed to be so I can prove that I’m getting there.”

With ROWE, employees could choose to work from home or a coffee shop, wake up early or sleep until noon, crank out hours of work in a steady cadence or take breaks, go for a run or run errands as needed.

Of course, if they needed to open a store at 9 a.m., they obviously needed to be at the store before 9 a.m. The result? The same employees slept better and were less stressed. Those who did go into the store or office regularly stayed home when sick and fewer people left the company. Productivity, of course, also skyrocketed. (Unfortunately, a new CEO eventually shut down the ROWE model at the company.)

This type of flexibility may not be new to some companies, especially startups — but employees who are suffering from a lack of productivity (and respect) may find that discussing ROWE with their management may be to the benefit of not just their well-being, but the entire company’s as well.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you feel like more flexibility at work would increase your productivity? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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Jim Whiteford
Jim Whiteford

I completely believe in ROWE. My current company (that I returned to after leaving for 15 months) had initiated ROWE and it was great to have the flexibility. I agree that the productivity went up along with my outlook on work related life. Good for the company and probably bad for my personal life I probably worked more but had no issue with it. Well the CEO decided to end it. This was a huge demoralizing hit and I actually… Read more »

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