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Why Workplace Autonomy Is the Way of the Future

Results-only work environments, or ROWEs, are on the rise. Turns out money isn't all there is to motivate people.

This is an edited excerpt from Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usby Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead Books. (c) 2009 by Daniel H. Pink.

A little past noon on a rainy Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, only a third of CEO Jeff Gunther’s employees have shown up for work. But Gunther -- entrepreneur, manager, capitalist -- is neither worried nor annoyed. In fact, he’s as calm and focused as a monk. Maybe that’s because he didn’t roll into the office himself until about an hour ago. Or maybe that’s because he knows his crew isn’t shirking. They’re working -- just on their own terms

Gunther has launched an experiment in autonomy at Meddius, one of a trio of companies he runs. He turned the company, which creates computer software and hardware to help hospitals integrate their information systems, into a ROWE -- a results-only work environment.

ROWEs are the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former human resources executives at the American retailer Best Buy. ROWE’s principles marry the common sense pragmatism of Ben Franklin to the cage-rattling radicalism of American community organizer Saul Alinsky. In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time -- or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it and where they do it is up to them.

This appealed to Gunther, who’s in his early thirties. “Management isn’t about walking around and seeing if people are in their offices,” he told me. “It’s about creating conditions for people to do their best work.” That’s why he’d always tried to give employees a long leash. But as Meddius expanded, and as Gunther began exploring new office space, he started wondering whether talented, grown-up employees doing sophisticated work needed a leash of any length. So at the company’s holiday dinner in December 2008, he made an announcement: For the first 90 days of the new year, the entire 22-person operation would try an experiment. It would become a ROWE.

“In the beginning, people didn’t take to it,” Gunther says. The office filled up around 9 a.m. and emptied out in the early evening, just as before. A few staffers had come out of extremely controlling environments and weren’t accustomed to this kind of leeway. (At one employee’s previous company, staff had to arrive each day before 8 a.m. If someone was late, even by a few minutes, the employee had to write an explanation for everyone else to read.) But after a few weeks, most people found their groove. Productivity rose. Stress declined. And although two employees struggled with the freedom and left, by the end of the test period Gunther decided to go with ROWE permanently.

“Some people [outside of the company] thought I was crazy,” he says. “They wondered, ‘How can you know what your employees are doing if they’re not here?’” But in his view, the team was accomplishing more under this new arrangement. One reason: They were focused on the work itself rather than on whether someone would call them slackers for leaving at 3 p.m. to watch a daughter’s soccer game. And since the bulk of his staff consists of software developers, designers and others doing high-level creative work, that was essential. “For them, it’s all about the craftsmanship. And they need a lot of autonomy.”

People still had specific goals they had to reach -- for example, completing a project by a certain time or ringing up a particular number of sales. And if they needed help, Gunther was there to assist. But he decided against tying those goals to compensation. “That creates a culture that says it’s all about money and not enough about the work.” Money, he believes, is only a “threshold motivator.” People must be paid well and be able to take care of their families, he says. But once a company meets this baseline, dollars and cents don’t much affect performance and motivation. Indeed, Gunther thinks that in a ROWE environment, employees are far less likely to jump to another job for a $10,000 or even $20,000 increase in salary. The freedom they have to do great work is more valuable, and harder to match, than a pay raise—and employee’s spouses, partners and families are among a ROWE’s staunchest advocates.