Why Project Management and ROWE Don’t Mix


In order to improve both productivity and work/life balance the management strategy ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) was devised. But does it work in a complex project environment?

The fundamental basis of the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) approach is that employees are rewarded for the results they achieve rather than the hours worked. Employees are allowed to decide how, where and when the work is done. This gives employees freedom but at the same time the organisation gets the results they want because the employees are motivated and focussed on achieving their goals. This strategy was devised by Ressler & Thompson and is documented in  their book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It”.

Technology companies, in particular, often offer flexible working arrangements. Notably Google, who allow their engineers to spend one day every week pursuing projects of their own choosing. This has led to some extremely successful innovations. ROWE was developed from these and other models to motivate staff, by improving their work/life balance, and increase productivity.

Naturally, clear goals must be defined but this approach has complete flexibility and the technology is readily available to make it possible to work from anywhere at anytime. It sounds almost too good to be true – but you know what they say about anything that seems too good to be true…

When it comes to working on major projects, the ROWE approach raises more issues than it solves. Many project tasks require collaboration between team members and often between different teams, which is difficult enough if the teams are in different locations but even harder when individual team members can choose where and when to work.

ROWE underestimates the importance of impromptu discussions and bouncing ideas off colleagues and even the social aspects of a traditional work environment. It is not conducive to building a team but aimed at individual goals and job satisfaction.

The often-cited advantages of ROWE, such as loyal staff, higher productivity, better job satisfaction and improved work/life balance can be achieved by other methods which don’t have the same downsides for projects.

The main disadvantages of a Results-Only Work Environment for projects are:

  • The physical location and working hours of staff are important in projects for requirements gathering, specifications and the many collaborative tasks.
  • When you need to talk to other members of the team they may or may not be there. And let’s not forget that not everything can be achieved electronically. Brainstorming sessions, for example, impromptu discussions to clarify requirements and even casual chats at the coffee machine frequently throw up unexpected problems or opportunities.
  • Whilst some people prefer autonomy, many others work better within a more structured environment.
  • Team-building requires people to mix and learn to work together. It may sometimes, or often, be easier for many people not to have to co-operate with other members of the team but it is only this “forced” collaboration that leads to a productive, creative and motivated team.
  • ROWE allows people to exist in their comfort zone and yet pushing people outside their comfort zone very often leads to a better result for the organisation, with respect to creativity or productivity, and a better result for the individual in their increased confidence and sense of achievement.
  • Although there may be some unnecessary meetings in a typical working environment, in a ROWE environment there are not enough meetings and valuable opportunities for discussions are lost.
  • In project management time and budget are inextricably tied up with the results. It is almost impossible to measure the success of a project without taking the time and schedule into account. Instead of simply being able to measure this in working days the project manager would have to record all the individual hours and the actual hours worked would cease to relate meaningfully to the elapsed time.

Of course, all projects are different and there may be some project environments in which ROWE would work. Since it is a relatively new approach to management (first implemented in 2003 at Best Buy) and a brave one, it is an approach best suited to small departments within an organisation and then only to those where the focus is creative thinking. Its cost-effectiveness and success have yet to be proven in a complex project environment.

Many of the problems that ROWE was designed to improve can be better solved by the project manager attending one of the available project management courses in a structured methodology such as PRINCE2.


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