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Reflecting on results
If your job is focused on "results" what does that even mean?
Hello, January. That time of year when individuals and businesses reflect on their year-end results. Whether personal or professional, it’s common practice to look back on the wins and losses, what could have been better, and what we want to change.
A few days ago on Twitter, some CEO was complaining about “productivity loss” due to remote work: the employees were not putting in enough hours, according to him. I refrained from picking a fight on Twitter, but I had questions. Were the deadlines clear? How were managers checking in with employees? The BBC summed up productivity paranoia well: it’s easier to track time than ideas.
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“Hours don’t matter; only results matter” has been drilled into my brain for more than a decade. I worked in a results-only work environment (ROWE) beginning in 2010. The concept is simple: If you get your work done, your time is your own. No specific working hours are observed. And if the deadline is reasonable, you put in the hours to get it done.
I’ve found myself repeating the phrase “only results matter” many times over the past few years with the steep rise in remote work and the corresponding discourse on the topic on The Interwebs. Yet, now removed from work environments that were toxic, chaotic, and psychologically unsafe, I realize some inherent problems with the concept.
While I still believe that remote work can be an equalizer in a way that the office can’t be, there are ways to structure a remote environment that are inherently unfair and protect people in power.
How the day is spent vs. real emergencies
One of the pillars of ROWE is that you don’t need to explain why you’re not working. Do you blow off meetings? No. If you run to the grocery store in the afternoon, do you need to tell your manager? Also no.
At first, it was truly a hard habit to break; the need to incessantly share if anyone stepped away from their computers for a nanosecond. I had been working remotely for years prior but always in a synchronous manner. Suddenly I had the freedom to do… anything.
I remember the first time I went to a movie in the middle of the afternoon. I was so anxious that I would miss something important that I stepped out halfway through the movie to check my email. But the world had kept spinning during the two hours I was gone. Eventually, I embraced my flexibility.
But another tenet of ROWE is that the reason you are not working doesn’t matter. All reasons are equally valid. You could be watching a movie or caring for a sick child. Not only that, but no one was supposed to share the reason. You were simply “unavailable” (short period of time) or “off the grid” (longer than a day).
On the surface this made sense. No one could pass judgment on your availability. But in reality, it was problematic in a company of 20 people — especially since everyone sourced their own coverage for work that needed to get done.
About six months after ROWE was implemented, my grandma died. I was going to be gone for several days, traveling out of state for her funeral. I needed to ask my team for help with clients while I was gone. But, in the strictest terms, I couldn’t say why I was gone. If someone had wanted to take half a day off to go skydiving, that reason was equal to mine, and my “backup” could have said, “Sorry, I’m also unavailable at that time.”
I broke the ROWE rules. I said, “My grandma died. I need help for the next few days.” Because sometimes life obligations do fall into a hierarchy.
The joys and perils of unlimited PTO
A feature of ROWE is unlimited PTO, something that many companies have adopted (including one of my subsequent employers).
As a parent, this was an incredible benefit. Following the school year alone (excluding summer), my kids had a full week of spring break, more than two weeks of winter break, teacher in-services, and other random holidays. Plus, kids are sick all the time. I never worried that I would run out of PTO.
When I became a manager in 2016, I realized that my reality was not everyone’s reality. Because everyone had to source their own coverage for time off, it was more difficult for some roles. One woman had no true backup coverage for her job at the tiny company so she felt like she couldn’t be gone for more than a few days. The lack of redundancy was not specific to ROWE, but a company issue. After she became my direct report, I worked with her to adjust her deadlines around any vacation time she wanted to take; it just required some planning.
But another employee (we’ll call him Brian) never took time off because his backup person was a jerk. He hated to ask his backup for help, because the backup would give him a hard time, complain, or do the bare minimum (leaving a pile of work when the employee returned). Yet the backup person regularly took time off, relying on Brian for help. And Brian reluctantly helped whenever it was requested because the backup person was senior to him.
As Brian’s manager, I encouraged him to take more time off — but I didn’t demand it. Nor did I intervene. Looking back, this is a core failing of ROWE. It assumes that people “forget” the company's power structure when it comes to PTO. But they don’t. Senior employees and managers enjoyed the freedom of unlimited PTO and people doing the day-to-day work, taking care of clients, couldn’t take advantage.
Results-only can’t play favorites
“Hours don’t matter; only results matter.”
I’ve repeated that phrase so many times. It’s a counter-argument for people who think that work needs to happen in an office because employees need oversight. The results should speak for themselves, right? The employee is either getting the work done, or isn’t.
In a true ROWE, “no results, no job.” It’s supposedly more transparent than an in-office environment, where a manager is only tracking an employee’s presence at a desk, rather than results. Those slacking employees (you know, the ones that CEOs are convinced exist in a remote environment) aren’t able to hide behind presenteeism.
But “only results matter” doesn’t guard against:
Managers playing favorites
Environments that don’t give employees the tools they need to get the work done
What if the results are impossible to meet or inherently unfair?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen some of the most senior employees miss deadlines and results over and over, secure in the knowledge that they were untouchable. While other employees struggled with intense workloads, working themselves to death. “Only results matter”… right?
Whether it’s called a ROWE or it’s another arbitrary system of results-based work, it has to be rooted in a company’s respect for the work and value of its employees. Otherwise, it becomes a system of exploitation.
A roundup of stuff from around The Interwebs. Some to make you smile, some to make you roll your eyes. And some stuff that I wrote on other platforms.
Burning the Old Year | Naomi Shihab Nye
Lies My Yoga Pants Have Told Me | McSweeney’s
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Twitter for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
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