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Lock & Load

ROWE epiphanies

Finished Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It* (intro and chapter one available for free download) on the way home from Iowa earlier this week, which helped slide a lot of things into place in my current view of what I want work to look like in the context of my life. Anyone who's friends with me on Facebook knows that I've been mildly obsessed with the book's core concept, Results-Only Work Environments (ROWEs), for months now, but I hadn't yet actually read the book. Fantastic stuff. This seems like a great start to abandoning unquestioned, outdated assumptions about what work looks like in favor of an updated, holistic view, and it's definitely the way I'd prefer to work.

The book and the authors' website do a much better job of explaining than I ever could, but one of the major shifts is that a ROWE doesn't fix work in a time or a place—all that matters is that the work gets done. That's how most freelancers work now, but there's less and less reason for any of us not to do the same. For example, my accessibility is often better in relation to my job tasks when I'm out and about, and there's nothing magical about an office and a set of hours that makes work happen (in fact, those constraints often lead to waste).

One of the reasons it's easy for me to be enthusiastic about ROWEs is that it's a reality very much within reach at my workplace. One of our full-timers has been working this way for almost a decade with us, and the rest of us operate with a huge amount of flexibility. In fact, as I was piecing things together on the plan to Seattle Tuesday, I realized (over and over again) that I'm actually responsible for most of the hurdles between where we are and being a true ROWE—including many of my own frustrations! It's humbling to see how my own flawed assumptions helped form what eventually became unwieldy pieces of infrastructure (to be fair, some of that is also connected to the way things were when I started at Grace, but almost all of the garbage in that has long since been swept aside). Nearly all the tools I needed were already in my sandbox, waiting for me to get my head screwed on straight and use them.

As soon as I got back to the office Tuesday afternoon, I started putting things in place: moving my office to the back, rewriting the staff meeting agenda, and dozens of other baby steps. In addition to the regular things that needed doing, it was so good to invest in what can be better for all of us. Lots of this is still in my head, and even fully formed I don't know how much anyone will notice some of the infrastructure bits, but they matter nonetheless. Also, because of how flexible we already are and how far ahead we work on things, there's plenty of space to try things and take risks while retaining the ability to fix what breaks or go back to "safer" territory without negatively affecting anyone.

Beyond just workplace efficiency, what we do and how we do it is very much informed by and an expression of what it means to be the church. We know the curse won't be fully undone on this side of Heaven, and that means that, whether we're farming or filing, sometimes work is going to suck. And left to our own devices, we are going to do some crappy things that work against the good of our workplace, our coworkers, and even ourselves. But the predominant workplace model does little to curb this, either, so there's no sense in adhering to it for that reason. We really can take some risks to make things better, and the grace and trust we must share in order to do so are made far more robust by the redemptive power of the gospel.

Perhaps it's strange to tie these ideas together, but they're very same elements that inform our view of the city, the world, and the Kingdom of God. Even if I'm off (that's another risk), God is working on my heart in and through this process, without a doubt. It's not about work so much as it's about what work means (and what it doesn't). That, in turn, leads me to be more reflective—and even repentant—about what life means. I want to be a better steward of all of it, not for my own development (though I will no doubt benefit), but for those I love, those I need to love, and for His Kingdom.

*When I talk about it at work, I feel the need to refer to it as "that ROWE book"—I guess I'm afraid of sounding like work sucks when I really enjoy it, even and especially when there's room for us to get better. Also, I'm chief among sinners in almost any sucky thing I can think of about our workplace (a very humbling realization).


The biggest downfall I see of this system (if I'm understanding it correctly), is the weakened relationships that it can bring about. Or, if you're new to a job site, the lack of being able to feel connected at all. And that lack of connectedness can lead to issues in communication later. You don't know what Susie meant by that e-mail because you're not with Susie enough to know her intent behind words. It takes a relationship to comprehend that. So, I think there's got to be balance. Freelancing is great when you want to devote your time to various things (including family)... but we have to be careful spreading that concept across the board. Sometimes, an office structure helps bring stability.
You should read the book—that objection is common and well-addressed. You'd probably enjoy it, too!

In a nutshell, "being around" is different from being connected. When Best Buy went ROWE, managers found a huge increase in collaboration, even across functional areas. What disappeared was gossip (you're only allowed to talk about others' results, not how or where they spend their time—just imagine how much crap vanishes when that's eliminated from the culture!) and people wasting one another's time. They were stunned to see the kind of work culture they'd vainly tried to promote through "team building exercises" and the like happen naturally when people actually had control of their own time (like adults!).

The weaknesses you mention are actually common problems in traditional work environments—mandating how and where people spend their time doesn't do jack to keep that from happening (ask anyone who works in an office, or think on your own experience in a workplace). Otherwise, no one would ever misunderstand an email from a co-worker. Regrettably, reality disproves that "being around" prevents that kind of miscommunication. So if the problem already exists, why not try something that respects workers more?
Oh, another thing on this (a little separate, plus I just though of it): being in and working for a church puts a further spin on this potential problem and its solution. If the gospel informs our relationships with one another and places our security in Christ, we are less likely to have the kind of mistrust of others' intent that can lead to hard feelings if a person isn't with us all the time (and we know that's no antidote, either!). On the front end, we have the responsibility to exercise discipline over our own thoughts and judgments of others. On the back end, we may still make mistakes (either interpersonally or just plain functionally), but we have the grace to ask for and give forgiveness.

For me, it's really hard to A) believe good things about people when I don't get where they're coming from (or if they're just in the way of what I want), and 2) admit that I don't know something or am not necessarily right. Removing the time and location parts of my judgments of others is huge in exposing and attacking just how often I'm making those judgments. And wow—it's a lot.

Also, teams that felt they weren't connected enough actually decided that spending social time together was a result that would drive their work. No more mandatory birthday parties, just authentic solutions to actual problems, like grown-ups. Sure, sinful people can, do, and will screw this up all the time, but that's no reason not to try (just like anything else).
I think I want to read the book.
I think you'd enjoy it—I'll bet your business runs on many of these principles anyway, but it's also interesting to think about how much it might help on a societal level to ditch some of this old stuff that no longer applies. It's fascinating how much our judgments in and about work are based on time ("I'm so busy!" "Must be nice to come in late!") and location ("She's dedicated because she's always at the office." "He's a slacker—I never see him at his desk.") rather than actual results. There's a huge shift happening, and it'd be great to make the most of it.