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Beyond ROWE – VOWE?


The term ROWE – meaning Results Only Working Environment – seems to be pretty popular at the moment.

The idea, in case you haven’t come across, it is that employees are paid for results rather than the number of hours worked.

NixonMcInnes, a local company I work with, following in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, implemented the idea of what they call “flexible working” many years ago.

Chouinard’s autobiography was entitled “Let My People Go Surfing” – that title should help you understand the philosophy.

Presenteeism: out, out, out.

What I like about ROWE is that it has been linked to employee engagement – employees who work this way seem to want to stay longer and they enjoy their work more.

And if you measure productivity – numbers of orders processed, for example, or even hours paid for by a client (billable hours) – rather than hours in the office you’ll see better results.

But I wonder if there is something better? I am sure the ROWE experts are on top of this, but this is it in my own words:

The number one principle of ROWE is that “people at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money.”

But my question is: how do people know?

How do they know whether what they are doing is a waste of their time, the customer’s time or the company’s time?

In many large organisations when you join you inherit a whole load of ways of doing things (processes). These are based on an even bigger load of assumptions – visible and invisible – about what is important. Many of these assumptions were made in a time where things were different – they come from the past.

So it seems to me it is perfectly possibly that people in a results only work environment will continue to produce results – that is, be more ‘productive’ – but maybe they’ll be producing the wrong results? Results that don’t actually help the company fulfil its ‘Mission’. Results that don’t actually help anyone.

So here’s a simple alternative: VOWE – the value only work environment. The idea is to do only activities that add value to customers, colleagues, or other stakeholders.

This, of course, requires a clear understanding of what value is. That may seem difficult and off-putting.

But I think most people know what value is. They know what they value.

I value peace and quiet. I value the smile on my child’s face, showing me he is happy. I value a clean floor. I value a beautiful object. Or a bit of software that actually works and makes my life easy.

HR and OD people (and some CEOs) sometimes talk about ‘values’ as if they were something special, something that only the enlightened can hold on to.

But to me a ‘value’ is just what I value. I value honesty and openness. Those are my values.

So actually understanding value is easy for each of us – we know what we value. We know it when we see it, when we touch it, when we feel it.

We need to understand that others value things too – and that what you value may be different from what I value. Value is a perception – ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

So in a Value Only Work Environment people understand this. And they dedicate their time not just to producing ‘results’ – but to making sure that everything they do gives value to others. Or to themselves.

Apparently when ROWE was introduced into Best Buy some resisters thought it was a wacky new age idea.

So in case anyone thinks VOWE is the same let me cut to the chase: how might you measure success in a business run on VOWE principles?

Simple: you measure profit. But you do need a new definition of profit.

Profit, by my own personal definition, is a measure of the value that your company gives to other people.

Give lots of value to people; and let them reward you with money (yes, money), loyalty and friendship.

Create a culture where employees gain lots of value and let them reward you with loyalty, ideas, and friendship.

I am perhaps being just a little provocative above. But I’d love to know what others think – and in particular, other ideas on what value really is, what profit really is, and whether it is better to work in a ROW, or a VOW environment?


Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

4 thoughts on “Beyond ROWE – VOWE?

  1. Hi Pete

    I love the way you’ve turned ‘values’ from a noun into a verb, thereby instantly reducing the distance between the value word and our concept of it, and instantly increasing the meaning of the word ‘value’. Never seen it this way, but so refreshing it made me go ‘Doh!’

    On your other point, I wonder whether productivity and values are not at risk of the same thing i.e. individual interpretation. So now rather than introducing some chaos through individual interpretation of productivity, you now introduce similar chaos through individual interpretation of values. The binding ingredient of VOW, I believe, is the company’s values, which link directly back to purpose. Perhaps this is what makes Patagonia, and other conscious businesses like it, successful. The company is constellated around a living and meaningful purpose, and the values are living extensions of this – verbs, not conceptual nouns hanging on a wall that nobody can relate to in a personal, alive way. Then, if those values resonate with you, you work there because they resonate with your own values. Then you can be set free to do your work in a self-determining way because the company values resonate with your own anyway. And then ROWE, results and productivity discretion makes sense, because it naturally follows on from alignment of values.

  2. Pete, I’ve been mulling this over in my mind and I think you are onto something.

    Just a quick thought, most industries are regulated to some extent or other, or at least have some external derived obligations that people sometimes find irksome on occasions. That said, they do establish a safe context, albeit occasionally bureaucratic and nonsensical. It is a safe context for the protection of customers, wider society, the environment and to ensure there competition is fair etc.

    I’m reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (eg the layers of Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization). The question for me is how do you make sure that all those layers are added to the ‘value pot’.

    To me there is something about the issue of value as being a constant process of recognition and renewal to make sure we are not just focusing just on the stuff we like. It comes back to your point – the process is a verb! Of constant negotiation, noticing, challenging and making sure that our values are doing what they need to.

    So, those people at Barclays fiddling around with the Libor Rate might have been achieving the short term goals (and values?) of the organisation, but they were undermining its long term credibility and the wider trading environment. Where was the local challenge at Barclays to make sure that short term convenience didn’t come at the expense of chipping away at the foundation of the Maslow’s pyramid?

  3. Great comments both.

    One more thing I’d throw into the pot.

    Are all human values taken from the same pool? It seems to me, from my experience of the people I have met, that we all value the same things – just to different degrees.

    I think this supports what you are saying Gina – people orient around the values of their companies. In the same way as we read newspapers that confirm our views, we choose companies that confirm our values?

    And Rob – Maslow’s hierarchy works for me only if I make a fundamental assumption that life is about getting needs met. Maybe that is the difference – values as a verb moves things from that assumption to a different assumption about life as ‘a way of being’?

  4. Agreed ….that changing the way we measure businesses to align with value defined in human rather than pure financial terms is better stewardship of this ball of rock!

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