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Going ROWE: Hopes and Fears

SOURCE: Flickr/ David Clow

Bryan Sivak, Washington, D.C's chief technology officer, is looking to boost productivity in his department with a "results-only work environment" during punishing budget cuts and a citywide hiring freeze.

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This is the first in a series of weekly dispatches from the District of Columbia’s information technology department, which is transforming into a “results-only work environment” where employees can work where they want, when they want—so long as they meet predefined goals.

Washington’s 35-year-old Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak predicts a radical results-only culture will boost worker productivity by 30 percent and enhance employee morale at a time of hiring freezes and budget cuts. Sivak has agreed to let CAP’s Doing What Works project attend internal meetings and planning sessions as his 550-person agency tries by January 2011 to become the first government department in the country of its size to “Go ROWE.”

Week 1: Orientation

It’s 1:11 p.m. on an overcast Tuesday and the bureaucrat in charge of “process innovation” in Washington, D.C.’s information technology office is making a point about change.

“Pay attention to my behaviors,” Bill Zybach says, turning his back on the 15 colleagues seated around a conference table 11 stories above the Judiciary Square metro station. “I’m Dionysian.”

To prove his kinship with the Greek god of mayhem, Zybach twirls a pair of rainbow-colored flags in the air like a majorette. Then the 53-year-old organizational design expert, wearing a black cowboy hat, orange shirt, tight blue jeans, striped belt with massive belt buckle, and pointy brown boots pivots to face his decidedly Appollonian troops.

“There’s a deficit of the feeling function in this organization, and on this team,” Zybach says. “That’s where we’ll get blindsided. That’s our shadow.” Transformation requires passion, he adds.

Thus begins a three-hour meeting designed to set in motion the transformation of D.C.’s 550-employee Office of the Chief Technology Officer from a traditional clock-punching operation to a clock-smashing “results-only work environment.”

Known as ROWE, the radically flexible workplace concept permits employees to work where they want, when they want—so long as they meet predefined goals. The idea is to define work by results achieved, not time invested.

Not a “flavor of the month thing”

“This isn’t a flavor of the month thing. This isn’t a program. This is a cultural reshaping,” said Jody Thompson, a ROWE co-founder, during a meeting with Zybach last week to learn about the agency’s human resources rules. Thompson, now a ROWE consultant, helped develop the results-only concept in 2003 while working at the Minneapolis headquarters of electronics retailer Best Buy. There, the initiative was credited with a 35 percent productivity boost, and private companies and some local governments have replicated it.

It’s never been tried on a scale like this before in the public sector, but D.C.’s 35-year-old Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak hopes unleashing his workers from face-time requirements and office schedules will help him overcome a managerial triple-whammy: punishing budget cuts, a citywide hiring freeze, and the perennial challenge of recruiting talented IT workers to lower government pay.

“My goal is an increase in worker morale, a decrease in voluntary turnover, and an increase in productivity—all of which allows us to do more with less,” Sivak, seated at the far end of the conference table, tells his team.

D.C.’s technology office—which delivers IT services to “customer” agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles—became known as an innovation incubator under Sivak’s predecessor, former D.C. CTO Vivek Kundra. He created the much-celebrated Apps for Democracy initiative, a software competition using government databases, and started rigorous performance review sessions known as TechStat. He now works across town as the White House’s first U.S. chief information officer. Sivak also admits to having ambitions for ROWE—though not necessarily for himself, he emphasizes—that go beyond OCTO, as the department is known.

“In the long run I hope we can prove this should be the way an organization can function. Not just in OCTO, not just in D.C. government, not just in government, but anywhere,” he says. “It’s about time we start investing some trust in people, and giving them responsibility and holding them accountable.”

Bill Zybach looks on at his young boss with an approving smile: Now we’re stirring up the feeling function.

Hopes and fears

But the meeting is not a pep rally, and Zybach steers it back to the task at hand: A first long look at the difficulties this leadership team will face as it attempts to implement—or “migrate to,” in ROWE-speak—a results-only culture. The obstacles are myriad.

For instance, if hours aren’t tracked, how do you integrate with the city’s hours-based payroll system and maintain Sivak’s commitment to playing by the District’s personnel rules? It’s well and fine for a software engineer to work from home, but what about people whose very jobs are defined by location, like receptionists? How do you track and define “results” for seemingly intangible work such as mentoring? And can a notoriously ossified bureaucracy really make the required conceptual shift?

“In a lot of minds, time is money,” says Glen Carter, deputy CTO for infrastructure services. “My annual leave balance is tangible dollars. My sick leave is a tangible balance. My fear is there is a lot of mentality toward time.”

And then there’s the really big question mark hanging over the entire office: What happens in January, when a new mayor comes in and ushers in a leadership team that could sweep away Sivak and all his initiatives?

“I’m really concerned about that,” says Applications Program Manager Dan Palmer. “Can we get this change done before leadership changes? Are we going to get down to the one-yard line and then hear: ‘Sorry, you have to go in a different direction?’”

Sivak punts on that question for now. But he and Zybach hint at potential unpleasantness in the weeks ahead. As managers start to demand that employees define work by results, not hours, “some people who have been hiding out won’t be able to hide out,” Zybach says. “We have to be merciful. Careful, but also severe.”

Sivak nods. “There might be cold, hard decisions we have to make.”

Despite the concerns, it becomes increasingly clear as the afternoon progresses that this ROWE idea has tapped a reservoir of yearning in this group of public servants. Their enthusiasm, however, remains tempered by the fear of being teased with the promise of a better work-life balance—and then having to return to the status quo.

“I really want my world of salary compensation to change to a vocation I can feel passionate about,” says Eugenia Moreno, a customer service manager. “My fear is that we’ll be psyched and pumped here in this group, but that when we go out there into the real world, to the naysayers, that we’ll lose heart.”

By 3:00 p.m., Zybach doesn’t need flags, cowboy hats, or any other props to get the software developers, administrators, and program managers speaking from the heart.

“I remember when Bryan first talked about this in my office,” says Shirley Kwan-Hui, a member of the agency’s TechStat team. “I looked at him, shocked. You’re serious? I can go home, pick up my child, and log back into work later? That whole weekend I did not sleep. I was just so happy.”

Kwan-Hui, in a halting voice, compares ROWE to her 10 years of organizing workers in New York City’s Chinatown sweatshops. “I have the passion for changing lives of people, especially the way they work.”

She adds, with an apologetic laugh: “I have really big hopes on ROWE.”

NEXT WEEK: OCTO employees grapple with how to define and measure the “results” they’ll be measured by, instead of hours.

Gadi Dechter is Associate Director of Government Reform at American Progress. Please send comments, feedback, tips, and suggestions about this series to gdechter@americanprogress.org.

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This is part of a special series: Going ROWE

For more from this series, click here