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Going ROWE: Mythical HR Rules and Real Employee Complaints

SOURCE: Center for American Progress/Gadi Dechter

A leadership team in Washington, D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer discuss how to transform their 550-person department into a "results only work environment," where people will be able to work when they want, where they want—so long as they meet predefined goals.

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This is the third 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 3: Acceleration

Thursday, October 21, 2010: Ten minutes into the transition team’s second meeting and it’s clear that the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer’s transformation into a “results-only work environment,” or ROWE, is accelerating, and fast.

Bill Zybach, the senior manager orchestrating the transition, calls for a “lightning round” of updates from the 15 employees seated around the conference table. This is the so-called design team, charged with communicating and evangelizing the results-only initiative to the rest of the department.

Asha Aravindakshan, the department’s chief of staff, announces a meeting of managers next week for the first group of 200 workers set to go ROWE, followed by a “big kickoff meeting” for the entire group November 9.

Eugenia Moreno, a customer service manager, says the group in charge of communications is close to finalizing a frequently-asked-questions document and other internal talking points that will be released in stages.

And Zybach says offices will soon be festooned with posters and other visual aids heralding the results-only experiment and celebrating “success stories” of informal flexible work arrangements already underway.

The need for urgency on the implementation is underscored moments later when the design team is briefed on anonymous employee focus groups that ROWE consultants from Minnesota conducted here last month.

Focus group results

“One of the huge things that came through is that they are nervous that a new mayor will end ROWE,” says Stacey Swanson, with Minneapolis-based ROWE consulting firm CultureRx. Swanson’s voice is beamed into the conference room through a speaker on the table. “They are concerned that even if they go through the migration, a new mayor will come in and it will be doomed,” she says. “ROWE will be gone.”

Bryan Sivak, the D.C. chief technology officer who initiated the ROWE transition, is a political appointee of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was defeated in the Democratic primary last month by City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. Sivak has decided to press forward with his ROWE plans despite the possibility that he could lose his job come January when a new mayor takes office.

In an interview, Sivak said he has not yet discussed his future or ROWE with Gray, who will almost certainly be the next mayor in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. When the issue comes up in meetings—and it always does—Sivak declines to talk politics. He does it again today.

“The new mayor concerns are an abstract set of issues that will be addressed in relatively short order, one way or another,” he tells his colleagues, and indicates that they move onto other focus group findings. It turns out there are plenty of other employee concerns the design team must address for the results-only transition to be successful, Swanson says.

Among other key findings from Swanson’s focus groups and interviews:

  • OCTO is a “definitely high-energy, fast-paced, crazy-breezy” place where “it’s difficult to say no” to managers and where flexible work arrangements are not common.
  • Managers are frustrated by their inability to reward high-performing workers, particularly at a time of pay freezes, and employees are frustrated that poor performance reviews appear to have no consequences for laggards. “They feel poor performance is not weeded out, performance appraisals are meaningless, and reviews don’t mean anything,” according to Swanson.
  • Employees “like the leadership” but “really felt that communication is not clear … they’re not sure what’s going on.”
  • Workers feel like only one-third of their time is productively spent (“Does that mean when we implement ROWE, we’ll get a 60 percent improvement?” Sivak interrupts the presentation to ask.)
  • There is widespread concern that a new mayor arriving in January will kill the ROWE initiative and return the department to hard-and-fast 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. workday rules.

That last item raises the hackles of many in the room because there is no such rule in D.C. government—at least not on the books.

“Nobody knows what the truth is!” Moreno cries out in frustration. She turns to Linda Miles, head of OCTO’s human resources department. “But Linda knows.”

Miles explains that when former Mayor Anthony Williams took office in 1999 he asked all agencies to have someone available to answer residents’ calls between the 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. hours.

(By the time the request trickled down to the rank and file, Moreno adds after the meeting, Williams’s customer service request had been so amplified by zealous managers it was “translated into an inflexible cultural rule,” though it doesn’t actually appear in the personnel regulations.)

Sivak sighs. “We have to clarify this ‘eight to five thing,’” he says, drawing scare quotes in the air.

The design team spends the remainder of the two-hour meeting brainstorming ways to address the employee complaints raised in the CultureRx focus groups. Among the ideas: attacking the 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. myth in the FAQs, requiring managers to issue daily praise of high-performing workers, and getting serious about firing poor performers.

“We have a mechanism for making people better, and if they don’t, we have a method for terminating people,” Sivak says. “The problem is we don’t do it because it’s a pain in the ass. We have to just start doing it.”

The session ends with a unanimous vote to distribute to all the workers the focus group findings even though they are not particularly flattering.

“I think it’s a powerful message to say, ‘This is something we heard and we know,’” Sivak says. “At the end of the day, this is the voice of the people.”

The focus group findings will be supplemented by a formal online poll of all employees in the coming days. That poll, by the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, is meant to establish baseline statistics of worker productivity and morale at OCTO, as the D.C. department is known. The institute will conduct the poll several months later to independently validate any ROWE-fueled improvements.

NEXT WEEK: OCTO’s senior management team attend a mandatory meeting in the department’s “war room” to “be exposed to the ROWE philosophy and business case in an interactive session,” according to the meeting invitation.

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.

More articles in the "Going ROWE" series can be found here.

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This is part of a special series: Going ROWE

For more from this series, click here