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Photo: Screen grab from Best Buy superbowl ad circa 2012.

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Best Buy, Yahoo are right: Work is best at office

  • Article by: Joshua W. Carlson
  • March 6, 2013 - 8:39 PM

Congratulations to the new Best Buy and Yahoo CEOs, and to other organizations jettisoning the “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE). Best Buy’s new chief rightly identified the systemic toxic effects of an absurd ROWE implementation, calling it “a fundamentally flawed plan for leadership.”

Marissa Mayer at Yahoo saw the same thing. ROWE also reared its head at Fairview Health Services, recently in the paper for huge organizational problems, just like Best Buy and Yahoo.

ROWE is not a tonic to organizational structure or culture; in fact, it is toxic.

ROWE kills the concept of “we” and replaces it with “me.” ROWE seeks goals that are the antithesis of traits found in successful companies, teams, relationships and people — the concepts of commitment, sacrifice and presence.

ROWE preaches that managing “sucks,” work sucks, structure sucks, being managed sucks, being reviewed sucks. ROWE says that the magic solution for employee happiness is to let them work wherever, whenever, however they want, and that management must not interfere with an employee’s concept of self and work productivity.

ROWE evangelizes “dialing it in,” as opposed to being present in the moment and showing up (even if there is some snow outside). It cheers working from the couch in your jammies instead of making it into work for the meeting.

The ROWE creators — who ironically are founders of a company of two — have written volumes of slide decks and books and other propaganda espousing how much and why work sucks and managing sucks (this language is used in the titles of their books). Let us all hope that this flawed paradigm doesn’t get into any more CEOs’ heads.

Consider a local comparative case study. Target Corp. (presence required, with business formal attire) vs. Best Buy (work wherever, whenever, however, in whatever you feel like). Two huge national retailers, with corporate locations in the same town.

Best Buy fell hard for ROWE — and failed. Target went the opposite direction and is an industry, financial and corporate-culture success story. (Similarly, the stock of Google, a presence-required firm, soared, while Yahoo’s bottomed out.)

Target embraced the power of presence, the concept of team, and the benefits of being together, working together and seeing one another as a result of showing up to work.

How the benefits of going into work and interacting with your coworkers has been marginalized — and even described as horrible — I don’t know. These are the traits of successful firms.

In the days of Best Buy’s storied embrace of its now-failed ROWE, the company was the subject of national news stories about how people opted to work from their beds, couches, poolside — from their health clubs, their favorite lucky seat at Starbucks, or their boat or cabin. I suspect Best Buy would now admit that although the concept was good, it may have been overdone just a bit.

While Best Buy stock flounders and layoff notices are sent, Target’s financial performance and corporate culture is seen as a model. I wonder how the performance of Best Buy’s employee stock option plan compares with Target’s over the past five years?

Another interesting financial problem for overly “remote” firms like Best Buy is that they have a massive accrued corporate liability for unused vacation and other time-off benefits. Employees at ROWE-type companies feel as though one e-mail during the day eradicates any need to report what would otherwise be a vacation day or sick day. There are employees who feel their week’s vacation can really be boiled down to just one or two days off since they had their phone with them at the beach.

Finally, a note of caution for those remote workers who insist that going into an office is simply too much to be expected of them:

There are millions of “remote workers” in other countries who agree with you completely. They would love to take over your remote-worker role — at about one-fifth of your salary. Winning the argument that your job and your skills are not needed at the office only further justifies your company’s sending your job to places like India with its vast, talented, educated and capable remote workforce.

Of course, workers will always need flexibility to mesh work and personal lives. That is not a question. But ROWE is not the way to do it.

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Joshua Carlson is a Minneapolis attorney who works nationally with companies in the area of computer and technology law and their impact on organizational effectiveness. He worked at Best Buy in information technology at the Richfield campus before becoming a lawyer.

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