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Going ROWE: Still ROWE-ing in Minnesota County Human Services and Public Health Department

SOURCE: AP/Reed Saxon

Best Buy, a Minnesota-based company, went ROWE in 2003, giving visibility to the concept. The Human Services and Public Health Department in Hennepin County, Minneapolis’ largest county, decided to go ROWE in April 2009.

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This is the fifth 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 “Go ROWE.”

Week 5: ROWE-ing along in Minneapolis

November 10, 2010: Still no news about whether incoming D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray will allow the 550-person D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer to continue its results-only work environment experiment. Outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty put the brakes on the initiative last week to give the new boss a chance to review it.

Meanwhile, Deb Truesdell of Hennepin County, Minnesota, has a gripe with our coverage. “I have to tell you that OCTO is not the largest government agency to do a ROWE,” she writes in an email. “My department, the Human Services and Public Health Department at Hennepin County … is transitioning to a ROWE and has been since April of 2009. We are a department of 2,700 people.”

Indeed, we have been describing D.C. CTO Bryan Sivak’s experiment as “the first government department in the country of its size to Go ROWE.” To correct the error, and to give readers something to read while the Washington experiment languishes in bureaucratic purgatory, we asked Truesdell, the ROWE manager in Hennepin County’s Human Services and Public Health Department, to fill us in on what’s going on there.

Gadi Dechter: How did you come to hear about the “results-only work environment” and what was attractive about it?

Deb Truesdell: Of course, there had been a fair amount of publicity when Best Buy, a Minnesota-based company, began working in a ROWE [in 2003], so there was some familiarity with the concept. The Human Services and Public Health Department in Hennepin County, Minneapolis’s largest county, was moving forward with a project to increase the number of teleworkers from around 300 to include roughly half our staff of 2,700. The primary reason was to be in sync with a new service-delivery system in which staff provide services to clients in their own neighborhoods. The intent was to have staff trained and comfortable with working in a variety of locations.

As we were moving forward with the telework project, someone alerted us to a Department of Transportation grant to support teleworking. We were selected and contracted with CultureRx, the creators of ROWE, for two years to help us move from a traditional work environment to a results-only work environment.

G: How did you get approval from county government leadership?

D: Dan Engstrom, assistant county administrator and the head of our department, brought it to Richard Johnson, the county administrator and a very forward-thinking leader. He liked the idea and approved our bringing ROWE to our department. Engstrom and one of his directors, Rex Holzemer, talked to our governing body, the County Board of Commissioners, and they gave it a "thumbs up" as well.

G: When did the ROWE migration begin and where are you in the process?

D: We began our first migration in April 2009 and that group of 500 began working in a ROWE in August. To date we are in the fourth migration and plan to be done by fall 2011. Twenty-seven hundred people is a large number to migrate. So far, we are at about the 1,800 mark.

G: What was the most common misconception about ROWE, and how did you explain it to employees and government officials?

D: Everyone seems to believe that ROWE is a “remote-only work environment,” not results only. We continually reinforce the results-only emphasis with training and aftercare that we provide to teams or individuals who are struggling. We already had the support of our leadership, so that wasn’t an issue.

G: Have you seen any results from ROWE so far? What are they?

D: Anecdotally, we’ve seen strong results of better customer service, like faster eligibility processing time, fewer clients dropping in and calling to check on their benefits, and reduced case backlog. We are in the process of developing a massive project that will track results with hard numbers, because we do have a responsibility to report to our leadership and to the commissioners. I anticipate that we will have some hard data within one year.

Other areas in which we have seen anecdotal progress include:

  • A reduction in our infrastructure costs (mileage, parking, and space).
  • Becoming an employer of choice. We have several examples of highly qualified hires who stated that they wanted to work for us because of ROWE.
  • An engaged workforce. We have heard many stories about how staff were able to continue contributing while needing to be offsite. We also hear from staff who are pleased to be able to be more flexible so they have time for their children, home-related issues, or caring for elderly parents.

G: What have some of the biggest challenges been?

D: One challenge has been letting go of our “command-and-control” mindset. For years, people were rewarded and promoted for being able to manage adherence to a very rule-based environment. Also, a segment of our staff had never been given any real autonomy or allowed flexibility, and there have been some struggles around that. People did not necessarily have the confidence to believe in the concept and to actually be asked for the ideas about how to do the work differently. It all takes time.

G: How have you handled these challenges?

D: We continually offer support. We have six staff trained as “internal change agents” who offer a lot of support and we are just rolling out our own concept of “ROWE champions.” They will expand the pool of folks who can mentor, coach, and answer questions about ROWE. They were selected because they show passion for moving this forward, and they’re doing this work in addition to their regular jobs.

G: How have you handled compliance with legal, regulatory, or human resources policy that identifies work with hours (such as “overtime” and vacation time)?

D: We worked very closely with our HR department and some of their staff also attended the ROWE trainings. We don’t violate any Fair Labor Standards Act provisions or other regulatory requirements. Everyone must work their full complement of hours.

G: But ROWE is supposed to get rid of the whole idea of hours.

D: As public employees, we must work a full complement of hours. Basically, everybody has to put in their full time. I know it sounds like it’s against the ROWE principles, but this is one adaptation we need to make. In a pure ROWE, you work until you meet your results and you’re done. The truth of the matter is, our work is never done—there’s always too much to do.

But this deviation from pure ROWE has not created any complications for us. We don’t except that people or supervisors are going to be tracking their time minute by minute or hour by hour. We do expect people to be sensible about it and we do expect that they’ll put in their full 40.

G: Have there been any surprises along the way?

D: Too many to detail. I have been surprised by resistance from some staff who appeared to be flexible and resilient. I have also been amazed at how well this works in many of our areas. Our goal is to have it work well everywhere and we will get there. Having migrations take place over two years is a challenge because staff are in so many different places in the change (some migrated, some not) but we have gained great skills in handling just about any issue that comes along. One surprise is the number of "converts" that we see: people who really didn’t like ROWE but have completely changed their minds.

G: How much money has the ROWE initiative cost to implement?

D: Our only cost, because of the grant, has been dedicating our own staff to this.

G: Is this an HR strategy that can work anywhere in government?

D: I honestly believe that it can. But it takes commitment, hard work, and a strong leadership at the top of the organization to ensure that it will happen.

G: What’s your take on the situation in Washington, where the ROWE transition has been halted while a political transition takes place? Any thoughts on how it’s been handled here?

D: I feel very sorry for the folks that were excited and poised to begin working in a ROWE. The delay is unfortunate.

Editor’s note: The “Going ROWE” series will continue to publish so long as the results-only experiment remains under active consideration at OCTO. Check back next Wednesday for the latest update.

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