Having the right technology in place for a more productive, results-driven workplace Featured

6:22am EDT January 3, 2011
Having the right technology in place for a more productive, results-driven workplace

The intersection of freedom, great work and technology.

At Ripple, everyone from the office manager to the CEO has complete control of their own time — no vacation days, no sick time, no mandatory hours at the office. Just get your job done and be great at it. And we're far from the only company that works that way. It's called a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), and it's a movement that's here to stay.

The origins of ROWE date back to 2005, when Cali Ressler & Jody Thompson convinced management at Best Buy that enforcing rules about when and where people work sucks — that people can be productive across time and place, just as people can sit in the office all day and get nothing done. Best Buy bought into their idea and implemented it across the corporate office of 4,000 people. Cali and Jody went on to write Why Work Sucks, and in the past 5 years, many companies, big and small, have become a ROWE.

The mantra of a ROWE is “Work where you want, when you want, so long as the work gets done.” It sounds radical, and lots of people think it won’t work at their workplace. But it really isn't that radical, and almost every company has one department that’s always been a ROWE: The sales department.

Most sales departments and most sales people are judged by one primary outcome — results. Sales people work from home, from the road, from coffee shops, in the middle of the night, over lunches, and in most companies enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that no one else gets. Why?

Because management has figured out how to measure sales in a meaningful way. Working long hours might be one way to make lots of sales, but there are many other ways, and most managers don’t really care how sales people get there (within cultural and ethical boundaries of course).

At Ripple, being a ROWE has had amazing results. We do more work with less people, are more profitable, have virtually no voluntary turnover, and in general have employees with more fulfilling, less stressful lives.

Being a ROWE requires 3 things:

1. A very clear set of goals. I was used to making “proxy goals” for people. Things like getting to work on time, or limiting time off, or answering a certain number of phone calls. Of course the real goals are things like sales made, happy customers, and quickly resolving service issues. ROWE requires letting go of the small stuff, and focusing relentlessly on the big stuff.

2. A willingness to let people manage their own time, and the courage to remove the people that can’t or won’t. For most companies voluntary turnover in a ROWE approaches zero. But involuntary turnover almost always goes up. The people that need micromanaging don’t fare well in a ROWE. Rock-stars thrive.

3. Technology. It’s a false promise to tell people they can work from wherever they want, then to make the office the only useful place to work. To really embrace ROWE, we always have to make sure we have the easiest, most accessible systems. We make sure that communicating from home, the mountains, or anywhere with Internet access is just as easy as communicating from the office.

Creating the right goals is a peeling the onion exercise. For every assumption we had about goals, we just kept asking "why" until we got to the heart of the goal. If the old goal was “work 8 hours a day,” the new goal was “solve every help desk request.” Once we stopped dictating how people should handle those requests (be at your desk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), people became very creative. Now we solve more problems with less people, and everyone is happier.

Letting people manage themselves changes a leader’s role from "managing" to asking "what do you need from me to get the job done?" This is far easier, and a lot more fun. I spend 80 percent less time managing people. Mostly I focus on getting the right people in the door, then providing them with the tools and support that they need. It beats rule-making and supervising by a long shot.

The technology is critical but guided by one principle. The primary question becomes: "Can people use this from anywhere with the same result as they could if they were in the office?" If yes, then we have a ROWE-friendly technology. Some of the systems we use (and implement):

?    We have used both Exchange and Google Apps. We like Google Apps a lot, but for a many folks, Exchange is the better choice. Both can be configured to work well across the Internet using either Outlook or a browser.

?    Instant Messenger is critical to working in a ROWE. The kind of quick, natural conversations that people are used to having at the office are often just as natural by chat once people get used to adopting it as a work tool. We use Google Apps for chat, but there are many options.

?    Hosted VoIP phones. For Ripple, if the phones don't work the same remotely as they do in the office, people can't really work from wherever they want. There are a number of good VoIP systems that will work from anywhere. Companies like CBeyond and Speakeasy are good choices for hosted VoIP.

?    Easy VPN access. The more challenging the VPN is to use, the more we end up chaining people to the office. We find that SSL-based VPN works the best. It's very secure, but much more likely to connect from weird places like

coffee shops and hotels.

?    If you’re not an IT company, then you need a qualified IT resource to help get everything selected and integrated — and to manage the environment to prevent downtime. In a ROWE, technology becomes even more critical than it

is in a traditional work environment.

Working in a ROWE naturally brings out the best in people, and lets them take care of business in the most efficient way. With clear goals, a willingness to let go, and the right technology, freedom quickly becomes the most valuable perk you can offer — and one that goes a long way to making a great workplace.

Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with under 100 employees. You can learn more about his ROWE experience here.