Flexible work shows promising results

January 20, 2012

Faculty Expertise, Talent

Working at home

A few years ago, Best Buy introduced a new work structure it calls ROWE, for “Results-Only Work Environment.” The introduction proved a great experimental lab for University of Minnesota sociology professors Phyllis Moen and Erin Kelly.

Their published papers on the impact of flexible work and well-being are changing the business world. Here, they provide some insights into the study.

What is ROWE and how does it work?

Moen: We tend to equate time with being productive. That may have been true when most of us were working on assembly lines, but it isn’t true anymore. At Best Buy headquarters, staff talked about how they would behave if they focused on results instead of time.

Each team had to focus on how they would decide the goals and results and how to measure them. They found ways to streamline what they do to focus on the objectives instead of just putting time in.

Best Buy gave us great access, letting us interview people in-depth, come and go, do surveys. We promised confidentiality to everyone we interviewed. They were a wonderful partner, letting us see a real-world innovation, and they were very enthusiastic about the study. It’s important for us be able to develop similar partnerships with other businesses.

How does this approach help reduce stress?

Moen: When we look at stress among employees and impacts like work-family conflict, most experts focus on solutions for the individual, recommending stress reduction, more exercise and so forth. We think what matters most is to change the way work is organized. ROWE winds up giving staff more control over their lives.

We’ve done three papers that have shown excellent outcomes:

In one paper, we showed that ROWE resulted in a reduction of work-family conflict. Now, the whole focus of ROWE is not on working families. Instead, it’s on giving all workers more control of their time by focusing on results. And overall, people felt less harried about work.

In a second set of results, we showed that people in the ROWE groups were less likely to leave their jobs than those in the non-ROWE work groups. Staff don’t want to leave for another job, and they like working at Best Buy. This has been a great recruiting tool.

And our most recent paper focused on improvements in health behaviors and outcomes. People under ROWE got almost an extra hour of sleep on work nights. They were less likely to go to work sick and more likely to go the doctor when needed. They were more likely to exercise. They increased their sense of schedule control and their sense of personal mastery.

Certain qualitative changes also occurred. People liked leaving before or after rush hour to avoid wasting time. Some liked the ability to work out early or later in the day. Some worked from home several days a week. Others were able to pick up the kids after school for the first time.

Will these kinds of results occur for other businesses?

Kelly: This depends on whether the changes are fundamentally giving employees greater control. It’s important to realize that most work places approach this by setting up limited flex-work arrangements. Usually the individual has to ask for a change, but the decision is up to the supervisor. So some lucky people can ask for changes and get them, while others can’t and feel resentful.

What is exciting about ROWE is that it takes a whole systems approach. The department, work team or organization goes through a process of thinking about how they do their work and legitimizing the idea of matching the work to the rest of their lives.

This is important because the benefits of ROWE relate to its fundamental ingredient, which is the whole-culture approach. It may be scarier for businesses to dive in and change everything, but you are more likely to see more benefits.

Learn more about the Flexible Work and Well-Being Study.

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.

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