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Freedom at Work: A Maverick Hangout with Jody Thompson

by Polly LaBarre on October 14, 2013


polly-labarre's picture

Freedom at Work: A Maverick Hangout with Jody Thompson

Thanks for joining our Maverick Hangout with Jody Thompson, creator of ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) and author of "Why Managing Sucks." We dove into some of the big questions around unleashing freedom at work, the balance between autonomy and accountability, and the hard (but rewarding) work of disruptive, social change in an organization. Please keep the conversation going here and via Twitter #freedomhacks. And don't forget to share your story or your hack around expanding autonomy in the Digital Freedom Challenge

Freedom at Work:  A Maverick Hangout with Jody Thompson

So much of the conversation in business is about power: what you control (“I run a $200 million piece of the business”), who you control (“My 350 direct reports”), and how you control (org charts, pay grades, policy manuals). Of course, power and control are spectacularly subpar strategies for unleashing human imagination, initiative, and passion—all those qualities every organization needs in abundance in order to thrive in the Creative Economy.

So what is the right strategy? What does it mean to manage an organization and lead people without control as your power tool? One obvious, but far from easy, answer: unleash more freedom.

We’ve experienced such an expansion in our personal freedom over the last decade. We have the freedom to connect with anyone anywhere in the world, the freedom to contribute and to make a real impact on the basis of merit rather than permission, the freedom to create and express oneself, the freedom to challenge, to speak up, to push back, to rise up.

Yet, at work, most of us are hemmed in by rules, boundaries, and budgets—all designed to keep us in our place, and most based on the assumption that we can’t be trusted to behave like responsible adults. It’s astonishing that the same grown-up who can go out on a weekend and buy a car or sign up for a mortgage, must obtain multiple permissions to procure a new desk chair or try out a new technology back at work.  

That doesn’t just make work dispiriting, it puts organizations at a real disadvantage. If you want your organization to be as adaptable, innovative, and engaging as it needs to be to meet the future, individuals need freedom. People need the elbowroom to ignore the hierarchy, roam beyond their job description, and make small bets. They also need the  headroom to pursue their passions, experiment with new ideas, and challenge conventional thinking.

Freedom is not a luxury, it’s not a privilege to be granted from on high. It’s a basic right of all working adults.

That’s the point of departure for one of the most radical, ongoing experiments in combatting the 20th century organizational ideology of control and the deeply embedded management practices that support it. ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) is the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former HR leaders at Best Buy, who rocked the working world ten years ago with their stealth experiment in total autonomy.

The ROWE approach attacks head-on what most “alternative work arrangements” only tip-toe around: the fact that we’re literally laboring under a myth (namely, time put in + physical presence + elbow grease = RESULTS). Our assumptions about how work works, where we work, and when we work are relics of the industrial age. That’s not a new problem. ROWE finally addresses it.

The basic principle: people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Period.

You can come in at 2pm on Tuesday. Leave at 3pm on Friday. Go grocery shopping at 10am on Wednesday. Take a nap or go to the movies anytime. Do your work while following your favorite band around the country. The ROWE “13 Commandments” say it all—here are a few:

--Work isn’t a place you go, it’s something you do.

--Employees have the freedom to work any way they want

--Every meeting is optional

--Nobody talks about how many hours they work

--No judgment about how you spend your time

All of this freedom might seem like a recipe for chaos, but it turns out that autonomy breeds accountability. At Best Buy, the divisions working in ROWE saw, on average, a 35% boost in productivity, a 52-90% decrease in voluntary turnover, a welcome reduction in the number of meetings, and a remarkable improvement in collaboration, teamwork, and employee engagement (not to mention boosts in other “soft” metrics such as energy level, hours of sleep, and family time).

ROWE quickly became the poster child for a new approach to tired “flex time” and telework. Ressler and Thompson moved on from Best Buy a couple years after they launched ROWE there in order to spread the practice to organizations around the world. While it’s thriving inside a range of organizations, such as the Gap, municipal government offices, and advertising agencies, Best Buy’s new CEO Hubert Joly recently canceled the program in a bid to regain (what else?) control in the midst of tough times for the retailer.

Which begs the question: is freedom only a strategy for boom times—or is it a powerful force when it comes to making our organizations fit for the future? That’s why we’re hosting the Digital Freedom Challenge—to unearth the most progressive case studies and bold ideas when it comes to expanding individual autonomy at work (and future-proofing your organization in the process).

Join me for a Maverick Hangout with one of the judges of the Digital Freedom Challenge, ROWE creator and co-author of “Why Managing Sucks,” Jody Thompson. On Monday, October 28, 2013 (at 11am ET), Jody and I will unpack what it takes to make radical autonomy work at work, build a company of intrinsically-motivated, switched on people, and see real results.

Participating in the Hangout is as easy as coming back to this page on Monday, October 28th at 11am ET. Jody will be answering your questions, so please tee them up in the comments section here (and via Twitter during the Hangout).

You need to register in order to submit a comment.

jim-smith_1's picture

I mentioned earlier that the two companies mentioned in the original article GAP had increased their stock very little since ROWE and Best Buy was up %300 percent in the absence of ROWE and in yesterday's talk it was suggested that Yahoo was going in the opposite direction or ROWE and yet their stock is up over 100% percent since Marissa Myers took over. Not an altogether bad record for taking the opposite approach.

In the absence of similar results tied directly to ROWE, I suspect the sale of ROWE is going to be an uphill battle. One of the biggest challenges I see is that management has not been prepared to articulate the specificity required to measure results as clearly as ROWE would need. I suspect that in the end many will conclude that the actual management required to make ROWE work is exponentially higher than what is encountered today.

Time will tell, I'm skeptical, there's too much human nature within management working against the ROWE theory. Time will tell.

stefan-stenzel's picture

At our company ( 60000 people) we have a lot of freedom (work time, location, communication across hierarchies etc.). People get very early a lot of responsibility and freedom. What we sometimes observe is that not everybody is aware of the fact that the own freedom ends where the freedom of other people starts and that trust, commitment, inner rules or guidelines, self-discipline, clear responsibilities, values and ethics have to be very mature and developed parts within people that finally all people feel free and treated in fair way. So some managers and colleagues have to encourage and develop the expected behavior by facilitating very open and sometimes very intense discussions.
In a nutshell: Freedom is should be the starting point but everybody has to demonstrate every day that she/ he is handling the freedom in a responsible way and for the sake of the team/ department / company. The more freedom (no external rules) people have the more internal rules are necessary – if you want to get results in a social system. So if we want to discuss the topic in a serious way we have to be careful about the often underlying naive notion of “Now I can do everything and I do it my way and that I will have fun!” The last financial crisis has shown what freedom without any (internal and external) rules, values etc. can cause. So to talk about the different maturity levels regarding freedom of people/ teams/ a company or even a society is key for a social system which set freedom first.

jody-thompson's picture

Stefan - yes Freedom is the starting point. If we look at it very simply in terms of the workplace, if I do not act responsibly and do the work (achieve the measurable results I have agreed to), then instead of taking my freedom away, (no more autonomy for you!), my JOB should be taken away. What we often see is the opposite happening. No results? Everyone back in the office. So flexibility, autonomy or 'freedom' is used as a perk and taken away if employees are not doing the work, or perceived to not be doing the work. In a workplace where 100% autonomy and 100% accountability is in perfect balance (and we assume people are acting morally and in line with company values and societal 'rules'), then no results, no JOB. That's the appropriate consequence. You and I would have a great time chatting over coffee!!

stefan-stenzel's picture

I agree, Jody. Another way to look at it on an operational level is that the employee has to show or even to develop the “anxious” Manager“ – in the worst case the “control freak” - in a way that she/he can (develop) the trust that the employee will handle the freedom in a responsible way. So freedom should not only be seen as development journey top down but bottom up as well. Thus mature employees can to take over the responsibility for their anxious managers as well! ;-)

_148's picture

Jody, Maybe it should not be called ROWE but AAA (The Accountability and Autonomy Approach). This labeling might make it more attractive to control oriented managers. I often use the London taxi system as an example to ponder. 22,000 drivers but no managers. If you tried to create an organisation to run London taxis you would need at least 2000 managers, and, you would never be able to get a taxi when you want one. This example suggests that there might be a sliding scale of JOB or NO JOB. Maybe it is JOB HIGH PAY for people with good results, JOB LOWER PAY for those with less good results and NO JOB for those who don't have enough results to be worth paying. I think this system is called "piece work".

nick-obolensky's picture

Hi Polly
Thanks for your note - we do leadership mindset and behaviour change all over the world and you can see more at our web site A lot of leadership development is based on philosophy (e.g. its right to enable freedom etc) - we base our approach on science and maths - (eg enabling freedom when things are complex is a necessity not a nicety!). Good luck with the hangout and will try to make it

chris-leach's picture

Apologies if this has already been asked/addressed: Interested to know how ROWE might work for Tech Support/call centre folks. I'm trying to move a Proj Mtg (hahaha) at 11 to fit this hangout, so hopefully will be here.

michael-reynolds_1's picture

Yes, you'll find a call center case study here:

john-handley's picture

Love the concept and it will take a catalyst of this nature to provide a gathering point for action orientated leaders who know the world has changed, yet many business leaders and organisations have not. We will be building an organisation based on a similar philosophy and practices, in a regulated sector in the UK. We will change the way the sector works, starting with setting up a company built around enabling our customer facing people to do what is right, in their collective eyes, in real time. Biggest challenge we see so far? Us :)

marion-janner's picture

Hi Jody
Really looking forward to tomorrow's Hangout. I work very much to ROWE principles, initially because my severe mental illness means I have very erratic functioning, and once I'd discovered ROWE (thanks to my pal Henry Stewart - leadership guru and author of Happy Manifesto), because it makes so much sense! Knowing that this super-flexible way of working has business legitimacy and isn't just a sop to my illness has been fantastic for my morale and identity. Thank you!!

My question is how ROWE principles can be used with staff who do have a genuine need to keep certain hours. In our case, we work with mental health ward staff and everyone keeping to the rota is crucial to ensure the right staff are on duty at the right time. Is ROWE mainly applicable to time-irrelevant work like many office roles etc?

Many thanks


jody-thompson's picture

Great question! ROWE is applicable to any job in any industry. ROWE is the perfect balance between 100% accountability and 100% autonomy and assumes that people (adults) will be in the right place at the right time to perform the functions of their jobs to get results. A flexible work program, however, definitely has 'limited access'. A ROWE does not. It's an inclusive, level-setting platform. Liberating! Looking forward to the hangout with everyone!!!

marion-janner's picture

Thanks very much Jody. Yes, I can see that if we trust staff enough to care for highly vulnerable people with very complex needs, we can trust them to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time. But quite a leap of faith for the National Health Service!

graeme-cooper's picture

Understanding the Managing v Leading relationship is essential. Managers deal with complexities whilst Leaders deal with change. Like a bike ...... Managers build it ... Leaders steer it. Few decision makers at senior level can, or should, do both.

andreas-stokas's picture

The article is great and I agree with the notion and details, but I have 2 objections.
1. Jody said "The basic principle: people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Period."
I think two restrictions must apply.
The first is that people's actions must be alligned with the vision and mission of the organization.
The second and most important is that people's actions MUST be moral and ethical.

2. Jody said: "Freedom is not a luxury, it’s not a privilege to be granted from on high. It’s a basic right of all working adults."
Aristotle's described the difference between citizen and slave: Citizen is the person who can take her own decisions. Slave is the person who can't.
Therefore, Freedom should be a priviledge gained when you realize that the person is able to assume responsibility for her decisions.

Thank you again for the great insight.

polly-admin's picture

Hi Andreas, Thanks for your observations. I think once we get a little deeper into the world of ROWE and Jody's work, you'll see that it very much takes into account the balance between freedom and responsibility (autonomy and accountability) and also the crucial north star of a collective vision.

Also, to be fair to Jody, I said Freedom was a "basic right," not she! (-;

charles-ehin's picture

You may also be interested in reading my latest paper, “Can People Really be Managed?” , published by the International Journal of Commerce and Management. Abstract: Provides practical suggestions in how to move an organization from an environment of structure and compliance to one reliant on emergence and individual commitment.

jody-thompson's picture

Charles - thanks!

bala-subramanian's picture

I do not agree with the premise "Management Sucks"; Inappropriate management may; but not the real,appropriate and creative management, never. Creative management does not suck, it is empowering and always fresh. Having said that, I propose a new title, "Why management is awesome?" and go on to clarify, we need more tools than the organization chart, budgets, head counts to administer "management" and to bring about ROWE or any other novel approaches, without compromising the traditional management maxims we need sophisticated synchronizing mechanisms such as those available through silent-offices (! ) Future proofing management is a worth while goal be it at an organizational level, community level or even at the global level.

jody-thompson's picture

Bala - 'ManageMENT' does NOT suck! But ManagING certainly can! We talk about the act of managing, not management, as in the person the manager.

bala-subramanian's picture

Jody - I am so glad you took the time to respond and point out that there is a difference between the act and the actor. Neither suck or ought not. The wisdom is in knowing how to bring both of these to sync in all dimensions. It is easier said than done with out "tools". Modern management and manager need "tools" that is more sophisticated than hitherto available. With the computing power available, we can and should, provide more freedom from drudgery for everyone and it is a worthwhile goal, I am willing to support, Silent-Office might be one such tool to help us be free as well as be fully engaged.

_148's picture

I don't like the concept that freedom is a right, but I do like freedom and have always sought it in my career. But freedom only works if there is accountability. So I am interested in how Jody creates accountability. The market economy gives every participant freedom. Accountability is achieved because each participant in the economy must win the support of a variety of stakeholders in order to survive - employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers, etc.

So ROWE will probably work inside an organisation if you can create the same sense of accountability to the internal (and external) stakeholders.

graeme-cooper's picture

Andrew, I agree with you. The only way via Jody's concept to succeed is to build an inpregnable level of trust between people at all levels in an organisation.

sandra-grant's picture

I'd appreciate some discussion and insight as to how externally imposed standards can be integrated into a ROWE-based approach? My organisation is funded by a Government agency determined by delivery against a framework into which we have minimal input. My instinct is that as long as people fully understand this and are then given the freedom to deliver to those standards in any way they choose, then it should be compatible. Also, what is the approach towards individuals who don't perform in the ROWE system?

jody-thompson's picture

Sandra, you're right. And, if individuals do not perform, then they don't get to keep their job. That's the accountability side of the equation.

nick-obolensky's picture

Unleashing freedom and maintaining control is not a philosophical "either/or" its a scientific "both/and". Its a mistake to see employee freedom and management control as two opposites. The trick is to understand when control is needed and how it can be managed and that freedom can enable more effective control. Self-control is often more powerful and effective than system-induced control. Sadly will miss the miss the hangout as running a workshop enabling leaders to let go more and thus get more done in a more controlled way!

polly-admin's picture

Hi Nick,

Would love to hear more about your workshop. And you're exactly right: one of the big challenges we're trying to tackle at the MIX is to shift the balance from age-old controlism to more autonomy and accountability. Not to do a complete 180 from total control to total freedom. The real challenge, as you say, is a both/and--how do you expand autonomy without doing away with the important efficiencies and discipline that are a product of control. And I definitely think you're on to something when you look to self- and peer-regulation, which we've seen are so very powerful. Thanks for your comments--this is shaping up to be a great discussion (you can always catch the hangout on this page archived after the event).

_148's picture

Polly, I am not sure that the Mix should be pushing a point of view - less control more autonomy. I thought the Mix was about ideas and innovation. Does this mean that management innovation that involves more control is not welcome? I feel you need to be more careful with your language and less enthusiastic about pushing your personal agenda. Maybe this is the result of the freedom you have to do what you think is right and hence is a good example of ROWE. Maybe the Mix does not have clear mission and values to guide you or this is an example of insufficient controls. Maybe, alternatively, I am talking about something beyond my pay grade!

jody-thompson's picture

Nick - sorry you will miss the hangout. What managers have control over in a ROWE is the work. They manage the work, not the people.

ajun-budda's picture

I'm a European HR function leader and identify with a lot of the messages here, excessive control stifles creativity and creates poor leaders who micro manage people. We are currently embarking on significant culture & org change. I would appreciate any guidance or thoughts on how we could best evolve a freedom empowered based culture, and how we can overcome the more controlling based instincts of my leadership colleagues whose functional backgrounds will lead them to favour a more control based approach particularly in context of need to contain costs.

jody-thompson's picture

Ajun - or you could consider ROWE training for your organization - which creates a culture that's opportunistic versus paternalistic! Leaders become results-coaches, and manage the work, not the people. It's interesting to see how the culture evolves - that perfect balance we talk about between autonomy and accountability - when managers switch their control from physical or even virtual 'hall monitoring' to monitoring and holding people accountable only to the work. That may sound like a simple switch, but there are numerous cultural barriers that need to be overcome - hence, training! This is not a top-down change like many changes organizations undertake. It's a change 'from the middle, out' . . . .

graeme-cooper's picture

Ajun, Good morning. May I suggest you consider the Leadership model 'Mission Command'. It enables alignment of culture, empowerment and greatly avoids the use of the 'Long Screwdriver'. I can explain it more via a call if you wish?

_148's picture

Graeme, There is a great management book on mission command - The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay. I think the principles are the same as ROWE - focus on the intent, use back briefing to ensure the person understands the intent and has a plan of action that is aligned then give freedom within constraints. The constraints issue does not seem to be so well articulated in ROWE.

karla-p-rez's picture

Is ROWE an option for all companies and positions?, do the culture of the country or region affects its implementation? How can ROWE be applied in a shared service center?, what kind of performance appraisal model is best for ROWE?

naveen-khajanchi's picture

I feel that a wholesome environment wherein people are at peace positively and can work with their passion and pride is what is required . Freedom is just a component along with that a sense of direction and maybe some good daily habits are important to be track .

perry-timms_1's picture

Having been a manager for over 20 years in various guises and at various levels, I have a huge amount of concordance with what you're saying here Polly/Judy. Call it blind faith, business naivety or just an intuition, I know this is right. I am less bothered about FTSE/NASDAQ prices (which in themselves feel based on inexact and speculative sciences) and more bothered about what work feels like in 2013 and beyond. There's so much of what we are all about at work, which feels rooted in a bygone era.

To say we can't / couldn't / won't change - even one step at a time - is what's keeping us here.

It's because of that I agree with Jim we need to ask the question "what's going to shift the dial and prove once and for all there is a better way for work?" Some definition of a case study would be useful. Increasingly through we see lots of thought leadership, articles, blogs and the MiX/CIPD ventures of this ilk, so there's a lot of people out there who want to and believe that this kind of change is needed.

I look forward to joining this hangout.

Vive l'evolution.

jim-smith_1's picture

I'm not certain that a handful of companies experimenting with a new management process for a few months represents a successful change. Especially when you reference Best Buy's CEO canceling ROWE. Their stock has risen nearly 300% since they stopped ROWE. What message does that send.

You mention GAP; in one of the best markets we've seen in years, their stock is down 20% in the last four months
Therefor the question for the up coming Why Management Sucks discussion is: what constitutes a successful "progressive case study"?

jody-thompson's picture

Less than 3% of Best Buy's employee base participated in a ROWE.