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Working from the Woods? At Best Buy, Making the Dream a Reality

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According to a recent article in Business Week, Best Buy is literally changing how—and where—its corporate employees work. Its ROWE program (which stands for “results-only work environment”) goes way beyond the virtual workplace, because it’s not just about changing locations—it’s about changing the way people work, and how their performance is judged. The idea is to not discuss hours when discussing employee expectations and performance—it’s not how much you work, or when or where you work; it’s the results of your work that matter.

The idea is intriguing.  Most of us have had a similar notion at one time or another, but few, if any, of us have worked for a company that does more than pay lip service to the “flex-time, family-friendly, work/life balance” model (pick your trendy name of the week). I once had a boss insist that he was family friendly, only to suggest that, really, it wouldn’t been inappropriate for me to keep my cell phone on while I was in labor with my first child, just in case anyone from the office needed to reach me.

Best Buy’s idea is to eradicate the work habits that simply get in people’s way; to take advantage of new technology to allow people to truly achieve work/life balance; and to decrease employee turnover by increasing job satisfaction, thereby boosting productivity. (Of the 13 ROWE Commandments, I am especially fond of No.1: People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money.) One employee mentioned in the Business Week story actually works from the woods, while he’s hunting; another does so while following the Dave Matthews Band around the country. And what of those mandatory meetings we all attend, grudgingly, no matter how useless they seem to be (nay, actually are)? According to the article, Best Buy doesn’t have any. (Yes, I know, you’re sending in your application even as you read this!)

I’m a huge believer in the notion that time is not determinant of ability. Why we need to work 9-5 in this day and age is beyond me; and if you can get a week’s worth of work done in 24 hours rather then 40, by all means, spend the remaining 16 going to the movies or coaching your son’s soccer team (or, if you wish, working on more projects—but only if the reward for doing so, be it monetary or otherwise, is apparent and forthcoming). But while I thoroughly applaud the company’s efforts—and they sound like more than efforts; they sound like success—such a system does raise challenges for managers, employees and IT.

Here are a few that come to my mind—please feel free to add your own:

1. Measuring performance gets harder. Some jobs are easy to judge—if you’re in production, for instance, you either meet your quotas or you don’t—but many are more ephemeral than that. This is especially true for knowledge workers, whose value to the company lies in their understanding and use of information. That’s why so many companies traditionally judge employees based on their hours worked—at least it’s something they can measure, never mind that it’s not a very good measurement. Under the new model, managers must work with their employees to set goals and metrics that rate true performance, not just hours logged—and setting those metrics will be challenging.

2. Complications with hourly workers. Companies that currently ask employees to fill out “time sheets” or otherwise use a time-management system should instead consider tracking projects according to meaningful metrics: Were deadlines met? Are the deliverables complete? Is the customer happy? Those records are much more meaningful than “Did you spend 40 hours at your desk this week—and if you did, how many of them were spent doing XYZ?”

3. Technology counts. Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, who helped develop ROWE for Best Buy, are quoted as saying that the “wireless world” clued them into the fact that employees could—and often did—work from anywhere; they just wanted to take advantage of that fact. Obviously, employees can’t work from anywhere without the right tools—and that’s where mobile technologies and unified communications fit in. Any company that wants to follow in Best Buy’s footsteps needs to seriously map and deploy the right tools to the right employees.

Would want to work in an environment like Best Buy’s? And if you do, how and where would you spend most of your time?