Washington, D.C.’s chief technology officer, Bryan Sivak, believes letting his 600 employees work when they want, where they want—also known as the “results-only work environment,” or ROWE—can boost productivity by 30 percent and enhance employee morale at a time of hiring freezes and budget cuts.
I interviewed Sivak on October 7, 2010, over email to find out how he heard about ROWE and what he expects to achieve with the initiative. The edited interview is below. To see how Sivak’s implementation of ROWE is going, read the latest installment of our ongoing series, “Going ROWE.”
Gadi Dechter: How did you hear about the “results-only work environment,” and what about it attracted you?
Bryan Sivak: I have long been intrigued by alternative working models that encourage individual responsibility and accountability while providing flexibility to employees to work in a way that best suits their styles and needs. I strongly believe that the key assets of any organization—public or private—are the individuals within the organization. The culture that exists within this group clearly defines the quality and efficiency of the group’s production.
I have spent some time investigating a few similar models to ROWE that have been or are being developed. But ROWE’s benefit is that there is a proven, rigorous deployment framework.
After we were hit with a second round of budget cuts in June, I realized that I needed to find a way to continue to deliver all of the services the agency is responsible for at these lower budget levels. Based on the productivity gains seen in previous ROWE implementations, I believe this can be achieved.
G: When did you first conceive of ROWE as an initiative for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer?
B: I announced the initiative at OCTO’s [Office of the Chief Technology Officer] all-staff meeting in mid-June 2010 but had been thinking about ways to implement it several months prior.
G: What are the most common misconceptions about ROWE, and how do you explain it to colleagues and employees?
B: The most common misconception about ROWE is that it is a "work from home" program. I look at ROWE in nearly the opposite way: It’s not a program that provides rules for when you can and cannot work from home, as in the traditional flex-time program. This is a program that provides true freedom and flexibility, meaning that you can accomplish your work on your schedule, when it makes the most sense.
Consider the commuting problem. Most working environments require employees to arrive around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, which generally means battling traffic jams and ultra-crowded public transportation. But what if there was no specific arrival time requirement, and an employee was free to leave the house later than normal to skip the traffic? Instead of spending an hour in the car he or she could work from home for a while and cut the commute to a fraction of what it would otherwise be, thereby significantly increasing productivity on a daily basis.
G: At a time of budget cuts and hiring freezes, is ROWE a way to boost employee morale and productivity without increasing costs?
B: Absolutely. Organizations that have entered into a ROWE have measured productivity increases of 20 percent to 30 percent as well as significant increases in employee morale measured through mechanisms such as involuntary turnover.
G: How will you know—and how quickly—whether ROWE is a success at OCTO?
B: We are using a number of different metrics that will allow us to quickly understand whether or not the migration to a ROWE is successful. These include measurements such as involuntary turnover percentages, various productivity metrics, and others. I expect to see results relatively quickly, within the first three to six months of the full agency migration.
G: Are you open to failure?
B: Absolutely. You can’t innovate and move forward without risk of failure. If we are going to fail, though, we are going to fail quickly and cheaply. And we will make the necessary adjustments and continue until we are successful. This is the hallmark of the agile organization, which is exactly where I am trying to take the agency.
G: We often perceive government workers as slavish followers of the 9:01 a.m. to 4:59 p.m. routine. Do you think it will be harder to implement ROWE in the public sector?
B: I often recount publicly how, prior to my arrival in the District of Columbia government, my stereotype of government workers were people who clocked in at 9 and out at 5, and were often just riding out a pension. What I have found in OCTO in particular is exactly the opposite. I have rarely worked with a more dedicated, intelligent, hard-working, and motivated group of people. Whether this is unique to the District government or not is hard for me to comment on as this is my first stint in public service.
But I truly believe that nearly every individual on the planet has an innate desire to do a good job at whatever task they have set themselves to—public sector or private sector. And if we can provide the freedom and flexibility for them to accomplish their tasks in a way that fits their needs and styles there will be a huge positive response both in terms of morale and productivity. It might be a bit trickier to implement ROWE in the public sector due to the rules and regulations that very specifically govern human resources policy. But I still believe that it is fundamentally possible.
G: Isn’t it easier to “Go ROWE” in the IT world, where you tend to have highly educated, better-paid workers whose work product is more easily measured than, say, a social worker’s? Can this thing work across government?
B: As long as you can define specific deliverables for employees you can implement a ROWE. My perception right now is that one of the most critical components to making this work is for managers to accurately define specific deliverables for their employees. This is easier for some employees than others. Programming tasks can be broken up into units of work, and projects can be measured on a cost and time basis. But there will always be a way to measure an employee’s output. If not, I challenge the manager to determine whether or not the employee is really necessary.
Take the example of social workers: Their job is to participate in cases and see them through to a successful outcome, if possible. If a social worker can participate in more cases or pay more attention to the people that he or she is dealing with because they have more flexibility in their working schedule, the end result will be positive for everyone involved.
G: How did the mayor react when you told him about it?
B: When I was interviewing with Mayor [Adrian] Fenty for this job, one of the most important questions he asked me was (and I paraphrase): "We are the government and we can’t afford to pay people like the private sector. How are you going to attract and retain the best possible people?"
At the time I had a good answer to this question, but here’s a great answer. I have a fundamental belief that has been proven by the past 60-odd years of behavioral research, which is that individuals are not motivated by money (as long as they are compensated "fairly"). Rather, they are motivated by three things (paraphrasing again from Dan Pink, as he relates in his fantastic book, Drive): 1) the freedom to perform a task in a way that works for them; 2) the ability to get better at what it is they do; and 3) the ability to serve a higher purpose. The third answer is built into the concept of working in the public sector, and the first answer is what we’re creating with a ROWE. We have some thoughts on things to do for number two, but I want to make sure we are settled in a ROWE before putting any new initiatives out there.
G: How much are D.C. taxpayers paying for this ROWE implementation, including the consultants you’ve hired? What’s the return on investment you’re counting on here, and how soon will it be achieved?
B: The District’s finances are not in great shape right now. Before fiscal year 2011 even started, the mayor and council required the agency [OCTO] to cut our budget 26 percent from the previous year (and 22 percent from 2009 to 2010). We are now being asked to take another 10 percent cut to help fill the projected $175 million FY11 budget gap.
At the same time, because people recognize that technology when properly applied is a big lever to drive efficiency, we are being asked to do more as our budgets are being cut. I needed to find a way to ratchet up the productivity and not lose employees or time through involuntary attrition and the rehiring that is necessary.
We had about $250,000 set aside in fiscal year 2010 for professional and organizational development and are using this money to fund the rollout. This is approximately $450 per employee, which will result in a multimillion-dollar return on investment in the first year alone if it translates into the expected productivity increases of over 30 percent. And that’s not counting the benefits gained by being able to do more with other agencies across the government.
G: Do you envision ROWE as your OCTO legacy, as Apps for Democracy was for your predecessor, Vivek Kundra?
B: ROWE will not work if this is an initiative that belongs to me. I can set the strategic vision, provide support, make the hard decisions, and help fix problems that come up. But in order for this to truly take root and give us the gains that I expect, it needs to be something that the entire agency buys into. If it works, I think we can point to the successes and communicate that we have proven an operating model for the future of all organizations—public and private sector.
Gadi Dechter is Associate Director of Government Reform at American Progress.
More on the "Going ROWE" series following Sivak: