Ready, steady, ROWE!

Today, my department begins a trial of a new culture. It’s a new way of thinking about work. Alright, it’s not *new* but it is rare. Especially in the UK. The culture can be summed up with one sentence: ‘Employees are free to do what they want, when they want as long as they get the work done.

There will be a whole bunch of blog posts on this subject, so consider this one a bit of a summary of all the main points.

History

I’m talking about a Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE for short. It started with Best Buy in the states. Two employees were tasked with making things better and they began with flexible working programs which quickly morphed into a Results-Oriented Work Environment, then settled on a Results-Only. They detail their journey in their book ‘Why work sucks and how to fix it‘. I devoured the book in one sitting and made copious notes and realised that this was what we needed.

The way business works now is outdated; why do we need to work between 9 and 5:30? Why do we need to go to one particular place to do it? It doesn’t matter if you’re a knowledge worker, or in sales, it’s the same thing: the focus should be on results, not when or where you are.

The trial

It’s not been easy getting this trial started. There are lots of questions around holiday allocation and remaining on the correct side of UK employment law and legislation. Essentially, we need to still allocate people the appropriate amount of holiday and then ensure that they remember to take it. This mostly covers the company, so if someone leaves on a bad note, they can’t claim to have not taken holiday, because, in ROWE, you take holiday whenever you need it, there’s no allocation really. Because employees get to choose when, where and how they work, the rules governing the Working Time Directive don’t count either. There’s no 48 hour waiver or whatever.

We’re starting with *almost* the exact ROWE for a three month trial, I say almost because we’ve made two concessions, which I detail in the guideposts below. After three months, if it’s still working, we’ll extend the trial. The idea is to see if vanilla ROWE as detailed in the book works in the UK. UK and US cultures are different and employment law and employee rights are also different, so we need to make sure it fits properly for us and our business. I’m 100% confident that this will work.

Freedom and culture

Ultimately, working in a ROWE is purely focussed on the results. But it gives employees absolute freedom to manage their lives they way they need to. We all have to work, there’s no way around that (unless you’re a millionaire playboy or whatever), so we should be free to fit that work into our lives as we see fit. You don’t need to take a half day holiday to visit the doctors, you don’t need to phone in sick unless you’re going to be letting someone down with a meeting or conversation and you don’t need to worry about where anyone is, you and your colleagues are available 24/7 by phone, voicemail, email, SMS, skype, irc, Google Hangout – lot’s of options!

ROWE isn’t an activity or an action, it’s a culture and a new one too. It’s about changing the attitudes people have towards work and challenging the long held beliefs that time plays an important role in measuring someones value (time is still relevant for deadlines and in some lines of work, but not in the web industry).

Productivity

I’m expecting to see productivity improvements too – I have no idea what they’ll be or in what format, but I’m sure they’ll be there. For one, I find I can get a lot of work done in the wee small hours, because I’m not being distracted and there’s nothing to procrastinate about when the kids and wife are in bed – so I can’t play PS3 or watch a movie, so I work and I can get more done in less time because I’m so focussed on what I’m doing.

The results

Our teams use Scrum to build our software, so we have a built in results measure. We’ll be looking at velocity for each team and the department as a whole, as well as defects, engagement and acceptance rate of stories (the percentage of story points accepted at the end of the sprint). On top of that, all the people in my team have individual goals and objectives; a mix of skills acquisition and platform or performance goals, so I can measure individuals as well as teams.

The Guideposts

ROWE is based on a set of principles called ‘Guideposts’ which enable the change of culture to happen with a purpose, the most contentious of which are ‘Unlimited Paid Holidays’ and ‘Every Meeting is Optional’. The holiday one is easy to cover in principle – it’s irrelevant how much holiday you take, or when/where you take it, as long as the work gets done. That said, we still need to make sure that we’re adhering UK legislation and in order to do that, we still need to allocate and record holiday taken. It’s a small price to pay for that much freedom though!

‘Every Meeting is Optional’ is also difficult for people new to the culture to get their heads round, it doesn’t mean ‘flip a coin to decide whether or not to go to a meeting’, it does mean, find out if you can get, or give value to the meeting, find out, or define (if it’s your meeting) the outcomes and then decide whether you need to be there in person, whether you can dial or Skype in, or whether you’re just required to give information which you can email to the organiser. As long as the work get’s done and you’re meeting the goals, objectives and targets set, it’s up to you whether you attend meetings and how you attend them.

The one concession we made to this guidepost was that, ALL meetings are optional, but pay particular attention to external client meetings or group-wide meetings. We’re only one department in one company doing a ROWE trial, we can’t expect others to change they way THEY work … just yet. It’s a small concession and, to be fair, will barely affect our department.

Metrics and the win condition

How do we know the trial is successful? If nothing changes. Like I said, we’re currently tracking:

  • Velocity: The average rolling department velocity over the last 4 sprints (and long term velocity, but this is less volatile and less useful)
  • Defect rates: how many defects are opened per two-week period and how long those defects stay open (as an aggregate and also by priority)
  • Acceptance rate: What percentage of story points is ‘accepted’ by the product owner at the end of the sprint.
  • Engagement: we’re using Murmur to track employee engagement with the company on many levels.

We’re also looking to measure the perception of the department from across the business.

The win condition will be if nothing changes. If none of the metrics change over the next three months, then the trial will be considered successful, the net benefits of ROWE will be over and above just the impact on those metrics. So, as long as nothing get’s worse, we’ve proved ROWE as a culture in the organisation.

On top of the team metrics, we’re also setting goals and objectives on an individual level – skills acquisition or just ‘stuff that needs doing’ for the platform, our tools or whatever. So, we can watch everything that’s happening and see if it’s making a difference.

Next?

Next I sit back and wait for a sprint or two and see what’s happening, I need to keep my eye on the metrics and the individual objectives, but really, it’s business as usual … or not, depends on how you look at it!

I’ll be blogging more as the trial progresses in the hope that others in the UK who are already in a ROWE, or those thinking about going ROWE can share their progress, problems, failures and successes.

One comment

  1. Excellent … wishing you lots of luck with this… I am sure it will be a major selling point in terms of attracting staff and retaining them which might be worth tracking in the longer term. I think there are a few software companies operating in this manner unofficially (I was recently interviewed at one who told me I could come in when I wanted and meetings were optional). Would love to see the UK culture change to one where we were all treated like grown ups and therefore acted like grown ups in respect to work!

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