Pioneering Best Buy Abandons ROWE; Catapults Workforce Back to Dark Ages

MedievilKing_iStock_000004614715_Small (2)Once again I’m baffled by yet another Fortune 500 CEO’s decision to end their company’s workplace flexibility program. Last week I discussed the horrendous decision by Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, and this week it’s even worse: Best Buy, the original sponsor (I don’t want to give them credit for creating it… Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson did that) of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) that I am extremely passionate about, has decided to reverse course back to the Industrial Age and treat its employees like minions who can’t be trusted to do their jobs.  To the rack, you silly peasants!

According to an article today in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Best Buy’s CEO Hubert Joly told his employees “You need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable.”  Read an Update on this quote

Wow… just, wow. I’m not surprised he thinks this, but I am naively surprised he’d admit this publicly. Way to garner loyalty. Way to make your team feel like they are valued and not merely widgets being moved around to suit your whims. Way to show you’re a company moving towards Enlightenment instead of desperately back to the Dark Ages. I have news for you, sir, your decision to end ROWE makes it abundantly clear that you do not care at all about your employees OR your company’s success. A company is nothing without great ideas, great products or services, and great people. The first two can never emerge or be sustained without the last one. But in Joly’s own words, Best Buy proves its people are the lowest concern on its list of priorities.  A company that treats its heart and soul this way is one I will reconsider doing business with.

This latest (hopefully short) trend by big businesses to focus on employees being physically in the workplace instead of focusing on outcomes (aka actual work) consistently blows my mind. I’m trying to understand the root of the problem, which seems to be born of the “this is the way we did it when I was growing up” mentality combined with not really knowing why their businesses are in trouble. I also hypothesize there is the combination of a tendency for upper managers to be control freaks who don’t trust that the people who work for them are capable adults (er… why did you hire them???), and our society’s premium on the extroverted personality.

How the modern workworld struggles with treating employees like adults has been adeptly handled elsewhere, but I’d like to explore the extravert/introvert angle here a little further. Extroversion can be tied into these latest disturbing kneejerk reactions by reviewing some of the comments these CEO’s have been making ala “all hands on deck” and this gem from Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”  Why is that exactly? If you are gaining results, why does it matter how the work gets done? Sounds like a chicken and egg problem.  Last November Joly apparently told the Star-Tribune that he wanted to restore accountability.  How does he plan to do so without focusing solely on results,  and instead watching the clock?  It’s clear these corporate leaders view physical collaboration as the only way to generate new ideas, and spark creativity, but they’re not entirely certain what results they are trying to achieve. Big problem. While I certainly do not want to dismiss the power that watercooler talk can have in sparking a wildfire of innovation, I think assuming that is the only way to do so fails to see the other ways a fire can be lit, and dismisses how about 50% of the population prefers to think. Often the best ideas are born from independent (introverted), quiet thinkers who obsess over solving a problem in solitude. I submit Steve Wozniak and Albert Einstein as two (out of a myriad of) such geniuses. They didn’t come up with their ideas in a vacuum, but expanded upon ideas brought forth by others before them. However, their real epiphanies came to them when they were allowed (to paraphrase Einstein) to daydream alone, Einstein from his Swiss patent office, gazing at the stars, and Wozniak before and after his day job from his office cubicle in total privacy. I would argue many of the most amazing ideas in the history of mankind have come to fruition in just this way.

I have no idea if Joly or Mayer are extroverts or introverts. It doesn’t matter, as many introverts can learn to behave like extroverts in order to assimilate into social and workplace norms. They myth of the antisocial introvert is insidious. But as an introvert myself, the premium on face to face collaboration at the office is obviously an extroverted value. In a previous blog I discussed introversion vs. extroversion. As I noted, one thing that distinguishes an introvert from an extrovert, is brain chemistry. This difference results in the generalization that extroverts think as they speak, whereas introverts think first, then speak. By forcing introverts to always collaborate like an extrovert (brainstorming session anyone?!?), you’re limiting their ability to bring their best ideas to the table. You’re effectively telling half the population (yes half) that because they are wired differently, they’re not welcome in your company.

The beauty of ROWE is that it allows a way for very different personalities and ways of thinking to come together in the ways that work best for them because the only thing they focus on is achieving results expected of them. ROWE allows for each situation to be tailored to specific needs, rather than relying on an obtuse top down mandate to serve every purpose well.

And sadly, for companies that abandon, or never move to a ROWE, they might as well be telling their customers and shareholders that they care more about office politics, than about getting things done well. I have yet to hear any argument that adequately shows that focusing on time and attendance instead of solely on results is a better way to solve the massive problems these companies are having. In a ROWE, people keep their jobs when they achieve results, as defined by managers in collaboration with employees based on the overall goals and objectives of the company as a whole. As long as those objectives are correct, and as long as the employee is achieving results, it doesn’t matter how or where the work happens. It seems to me, the Yahoo!s and the Best Buy’s of the world have yet to identify exactly what the root of their troubles are, and instead they have embarked on a witch hunt, ready to burn at the stake anything they don’t understand. You can serve the master or results or the master of presenteeism, but you can’t serve them both.  Why is it that we give more freedom to our college students to achieve results than we do to productive, responsible adults?

ROWE is not a work from home program. It is an all-that-matters-is-doing-your-job program. Joly clearly doesn’t get that. He’d rather dictate how work should happen based on his own personal preferences and temperament. He’d rather throw Best Buy – the first incubator of the most revolutionary workplace reformation ever — back into the dark ages when internal company politics ruled all behaviors, instead of focusing entirely on customer satisfaction and measurable achievement. He’d rather bow to the pressure of public perception and a Wall Street who doesn’t understand the work world has moved ahead of their outdated methods. He’d rather take comfort in knowing that he is the boss and what he says goes. He’d rather arrogantly continue to believe his ideas are better than the collective ideas of his massive workforce who know better than he does how to do their individual jobs.

He’d rather treat people as disposable, instead of recognizing his highest performers are indispensable.

Good luck with that.




Update: According to a 03/18/2013 Op Ed piece written by Joly in the Star Tribune, his comments were misconstrued.  I have decided to leave my post as it was originally posted, because I believe the overall result of the removal of ROWE has not changed at all by his comments.  In fact, I believe they’ve been re-enforced by his clear lack of understanding of what ROWE is.

Read the ROWE Manifesto and its recent manifesto-ette!

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