By: Wayne Sleight

ROWE and the Traditional 9–5 Workplace: Not as Mutually Exclusive as You Might Think

July 18, 2017 10 minutes


If you’re familiar with 97th Floor, you know that we practice an HR management strategy called ROWE, which stands for Results Only Work Environment. In fact, this month marks two years since we officially became a ROWE Certified Organization. While ROWE isn’t all that our culture is, it definitely is the first aspect of our culture that people think of.

I’m fine with that. After all, the autonomy we give our employees is one of the things that really sets 97th Floor apart. That said, it feels like there might be some misconception about what the reality of ROWE really entails. I’ve heard non-97th Floor employees describe ROWE as being all about working remotely from sun-soaked vacation spots, sipping icy drinks and brushing sand off of your keyboard while you tackle your tasks — or throwing decorum to the wind, and working from your couch while wrapped in an old blanket.

But while it’s true that all of us at 97th Floor have the freedom to do both of those (I know I have a few times with the former… and, yes, maybe a couple of times with the latter), that doesn’t mean that the perceived opposite (working 9–5 in the office) isn’t also ROWE. In fact, sometimes a standard 9–5 employee is more ROWE focused than the guy who’s working from the beach (or the living room).  

You see, what ROWE is all about is allowing the individual employee to decide what works best for them. Productivity, efficiency, effectiveness — these are the considerations that drive a ROWE employee. Hours spent in the office, or hours not spent in the office, don’t even come into play. In essence, the workforce gets 100% autonomy, and in return gives 100% accountability. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want, as long as we get the work done.

Managing Misconceptions

Of course, it’s not hard to see how this perceived division between ROWE and standard 9–5 work environments came to be. In fact, just a couple of week ago a local business magazine picked 97th Floor as one of the best companies to work for in Utah County. Unfortunately, in the resultant article I was quoted as saying something that in retrospect I feel may have added to the misconception that ROWE (and therefore 97th Floor) is against the 9–5 schedule.

“Too often,” I posited, “mediocre employees hide behind a 9–5 environment. ROWE lets the work — not the punch clock — do the talking.” And while I stand by my assessment, the point I was trying to make may have not been as clear as I would have hoped. What I meant by this is that just putting in 40 hours (or even 50 or 60) per week doesn’t necessarily mean effective results.

Setting New Expectations

The truth is that lackluster employees will likely be just as unengaged at 40 hours as they are at 20 hours, but it’s those same employees who are so quick to point out that because they’re putting in the hours, they must be ‘working.’ A ROWE company is one that recognizes that employees are paid to do more than just warm a seat in the office. Underperforming employees shouldn’t be able to hide behind perfect attendance, because attendance doesn’t generate profit. Where someone does their work or how many hours they are working simply doesn’t matter, as long as they’re getting the results.

And yes, it’s true that even in most traditional 9–5 workplaces, employees are still judged on results as well. But oftentimes the amount of hours put in can help keep an underperforming employee around for a bit longer. If your 9–5 based company doesn’t allow hours worked to be a factor in employee evaluations, then that’s great, but if that’s the case, then what’s the point enforcing a schedule in the first place?

For the record, 97th Floor doesn’t have a problem at all with people working Monday through Friday, 9am–5pm. In fact, based on my estimate (and obviously I can’t pull in actual numbers since we don’t track time), about 20% of our employees still work every day during the week at our office, showing up at 8 or 9am and staying for about 8 hours. These people are absolutely taking full advantage of ROWE. They are deciding that being at the office for 8 hours each day from Monday to Friday is the best for them.

Shifting Control

I’d venture a guess that these people are more effective by choosing for themselves to work a traditional schedule than if they were forced to by their employer. I’d also estimate that another 20% of our employees work almost exclusively from home or elsewhere (only coming into the office for meetings) and the remaining 60% work a hybrid between the office, home, and elsewhere. Each of these work schedules are just as much a part of ROWE as the next.

One benefit that people often point at of having everyone in the office each day from 9–5 is that people need to collaborate and communicate with each other. With Slack, GoToMeeting, and other collaboration tools, that’s really not an argument anymore. For the times when an employee needs to meet in-person, they just schedule a meeting at the office, giving everyone involved enough notice. Again, this isn’t to say that working in an office everyday from 9–5 is bad. The bad part is not having a choice in the matter. People should choose for themselves where and when they work.

So truly, the main difference between a traditional 9–5 workplace and a ROWE, is control; one keeps the control in the hands of the employer, and the other puts control in the hands of the employee. While few would admit this, too often managers/bosses are control freaks. Being a control freak isn’t all that bad as long as you only control what truly matters to the business. Employees lives shouldn’t be controlled by employers. If anything, the employer should be a resource to help the employee live their best version of life. After all, the happier the employee is, the better they will perform for the company.

Measuring Success

Obviously, we’re really only talking about time and location here, and not everything that ROWE encompasses. Still, in regards to time and where we work, science is backing up the principles of ROWE. Recently, Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford, gave a talk at TEDx about working from home. His study with one large company found that giving employees the choice to work from home resulted in a 50% drop in employee attrition, employee performance went up by 24%, and the company made an additional $2,000 in profit per employee. There was also a study by author and National Geographic Fellow, Dan Buettner, that showed cutting an hour-long commute each way from a person’s daily schedule gives that person the happiness equivalent of an extra $40,000 per year. At 97th Floor we focused on tracking four metrics when we switched over to ROWE: client retention rate, employee turnover rate, revenue per employee, and goal completion percentages of contracts. Over the last two years all four have improved. Our clients and employees are staying longer, we are delivering better results, and we’re more efficient.

Our society is getting better and better at allowing people to be individuals. People are increasingly encouraged to do and be what makes them happy. Yet with work, the majority of companies still expect everyone to be the same. We need to change this mindset and let individuals manage themselves, while the company manages the work results. When that happens, success will come — whether that means working 8 hours a day in the office, or doing it all from the comfort of a well-worn couch.

Written by Wayne Sleight on July 18, 2017

Chief Operating Officer

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