At first blush, 2013 got off to a bad start for Cali Ressler.
Ressler, one of the co-founders of the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, saw her alternative approach to work killed by electronics retail giant Best Buy Co.
This was the very company in which Ressler and her partner, Jody Thompson, had created the ROWE method, which lets employees work when and where they choose as long as they deliver the right results. And shortly before the Best Buy move, Yahoo Inc.’s new chief executive, Marissa Mayer, dealt another blow to employee autonomy by axing the firm’s work-at-home program.
But the twin moves ultimately proved to aid, not undermine ROWE, Ressler says. “These situations blew the conversation wide open about the difference between flexibility programs and a Results-Only Work Environment,” Ressler said in an email. “When people aren’t delivering results in a flexibility program, organizations take away the flexibility or the ability to work at home—but never address performance or get clear on what needs to be achieved and how it’s being measured.”
Ressler, 36, has been explaining the benefits of a results focus for more than a decade. For the past six years, she and Thompson have run an independent consulting business—CultureRx—dedicated to the ROWE philosophy. The radical approach has landed Ressler on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek and press attention from the likes of the New York Times, USA Today and Time. In 2007, Workforce gave CultureRx an Optimas Award for people management innovation. Ressler and Thompson also have written two books and served clients including retailer The Gap Inc., adhesives maker H.B. Fuller and automobile site Edmunds.com Inc.
ROWE now has academic research behind it, but the method started from the observations of a couple of HR professionals. Ressler and Thompson worked in HR at Best Buy, and heard about problems in the same areas such as employee engagement, productivity and work-life balance. Standard solutions didn’t move the needle. So they homed in on treating workers like “adults,” with real autonomy and accountability. Some Best Buy units adopted the approach with positive outcomes, and the company eventually embraced ROWE throughout its headquarters. Ressler and Thompson started CultureRx as a Best Buy subsidiary, but it later spun off as a separate firm.
In reversing ROWE, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said it delegates too much authority to employees. But Ressler argues the real problem is lack of management willingness to have hard conversations. “Best Buy and Yahoo may have ‘all hands on deck’ now, but all those hands still aren’t clear about their results,” Ressler says. “In a ROWE, conversations are about results, performance and the customer—period.”
Despite the Yahoo and Best Buy moves, 2013 may turn out to be very good for Ressler. CultureRx expanded into Canada and Europe in the past 12 months, and alternative work arrangements remain a hot topic. Says Ressler: “Jody and I expect to never give up until ROWE is the status quo—it’s not a matter of if organizations will adopt a ROWE, it’s a matter of when.”
Ed Frauenheim is associate editorial director of Human Capital Media, the parent organization of Workforce. Comment below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.