Inc.com | by Scott Westcott | August 2008
For Linda Skoglund, getting a pedicure on a busy Tuesday afternoon was a career turning point. It ran against her Midwestern work ethic. And certainly, there was plenty of work piled up at J.A. Counter & Associates, the $2.5 million insurance and investment advisory firm she owns in New Richmond, Wisconsin. On the other hand, canceling her visit to the salon that day could have sent a bad message. It risked signaling to her 15 employees that they weren’t allowed to do whatever they wanted at any given time during work hours. And that would tank her plans to overhaul the work environment at J.A. Counter.
Finally, last spring, Skoglund decided to implement a new way of managing — a system known as a results-only work environment, or ROWE. Now, J.A. Counter’s employees can leave the office whenever they please. They don’t have to tell anyone where they are going or why. If an employee chooses to share the fact that he or she is taking the afternoon off to go to a baseball game, no one’s allowed to make muttering comments about his or her work ethic. It’s no surprise that this system has boosted morale; perhaps more significant, Skoglund says it has improved productivity as well.
Of course, companies have been touting flexible work arrangements for years. At most businesses, however, freedom has a limit: It’s allowed only a couple of days a week or only for certain employees. But Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the two women who developed ROWE, say the system doesn’t work unless it works for everyone — even the assistants, secretaries, and receptionists who have traditionally been at the mercy of a boss. Ressler and Thompson came up with the idea for ROWE while they were working in the HR department at electronics giant Best Buy, which wound up offering it to 3,000 employees at its corporate headquarters. This year, Ressler and Thompson left Best Buy and ventured out on their own as consultants and authors of the recently published book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. So far, they have worked with a few small companies, including J.A. Counter, and the results have been surprising. Changing the entire philosophy of work at corporate behemoth Best Buy was hard enough; at smaller companies, the two have found, it can be even harder.
New technology allows all employees to view their desktop from any station in the office. The company is considering installing a new phone system that will allow Wentlandt to answer phones from off-site locations, giving her even more flexibility. “I don’t have the spontaneity that everyone else has,” Wentlandt says. “But if I need coverage, I get it.” She has left work to take her grandson to a museum and to attend her father’s birthday party. Before, she would have had to take vacation time or skip those events.
Mark Devereux, a senior investment adviser, has manned the front desk several times — a role he admits he would have sniffed at a few months earlier. “At first I thought, Where is the payback doing that?” he says. “But then I began to realize the value of becoming more aware of each other and what we contribute to the overall success of the company. And when I answer the phone, it gives me the opportunity to explain ROWE to our clients. They think we’re cutting edge.”
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