The results-oriented workplace model -- where employees set their own schedules according to what they get done, rather than simply follow the clock -- is said to be a hit with businesses eager to focus on tasks done rather than hours worked.

But is it good enough for government work? Hennepin County plans to find out.

Since July, about 500 employees in the county's Human Services and Public Health Department have been working flexible shifts along the lines of the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE for short.

The workplace strategy, developed a few years ago by two Best Buy managers for the company headquarters in Richfield, permits employees to do jobs their own way without having to attend every meeting or even work a full 40-hour week.

Hennepin County still requires all employees to put in 40 hours a week, according to Deb Truesdell, the county's ROWE manager. But she said ROWE's focus on results allows work teams to mix schedules and find better ways of doing a job.

Flex time

"Maybe it works for you to come in at 7 [a.m.] and leave at 2, or work at a different location one day a week, or ... do case processing at home," Truesdell said. "I think this can build in the kind of flexibility where a team can get together and figure out who can do a task the fastest and free up a few hours."

But Paul Rupert, a workplace flexibility expert in Washington, D.C., said the county should be wary of letting ROWE interfere with its customer service.

And a longtime Hennepin County employee agreed, saying that ROWE may work fine in the business world but runs the risk of shortchanging taxpayers.

"You're supposed to be there for the public. We've always had core hours of 8 to 4:30," said Ken Collias, who works in the child support division. ROWE "may be in the employees' best interest, but I don't think it's in the public's best interest."

Workers get more control

Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, the Twin Cities women who created ROWE and now work fulltime marketing it, said they believe their workplace model can make government run more efficiently.

"Hennepin County will be the blueprint for what other government agencies are able to do. They're the pioneers right now," Ressler said. "We are receiving a lot of interest from other agencies."

Hennepin County got started with ROWE courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which last winter made a $750,000 grant to Thompson and Ressler's firm, CultureRx, to train workplaces in using their system.

Cutting 35W congestion

The goal of the grant, according to MnDOT, is to change the way business is done so there are fewer commuters on Interstate 35W during peak traffic hours. It split the grant among three large employers: Fairview Health Services, Valspar Corp. and Hennepin County.

Using the ROWE model, the county is directing individual teams to set goals for themselves and achieve them. Workers may skip a meeting but should alert their supervisor, who holds them accountable for results.

"I think the biggest reward is that people have more flexibility and control over their work/life balance," Truesdell said.

The union that represents the county workers is reserving judgment on ROWE until more information is in. But AFSCME Local 34 President Jean Diederich, who works in Human Services as a child support officer, said she likes the model.

"Under our current system, it's command and control. Supervisors are police. Under ROWE, supervisors will be freed up more to mentor and to coach and give workers the tools to do their jobs. You're not working as an individual, you're working as a team," she said.

"With ROWE, you're not watching the clock. You do [your job] until you're done."

Rupert, the workplace consultant, said it's good to give workers flexibility and control over their schedules. But he added that ROWE may need tweaking to work well in the public sector.

'Engaged and excited'

Thompson and Ressler, he said, "have an approach that clearly gets people engaged and excited. ... [But] you have to figure out how to adapt this thing to other environments."

Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice -- a progressive Minnesota-based think tank that recently issued a report proposing that governments set goals and measure results -- applauded Hennepin County for giving ROWE a try.

"This kind of experimentation and innovation is exactly what we need to improve government performance,'' he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455