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True Story: a public sector Results-Only Work Environment experiment

We’re really happy to preview this chapter excerpt from Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It. One of the fun parts of writing this book was collecting managers’ stories from clients with whom we’ve conducted Results-Only Work Environment training. This exerpt is from Nancy Dietl Griffin, the Director of Human Resources for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. The Minnesota Court System began their onsite training with CultureRx in September, 2011.


Similar to many human resources professionals, I like to keep abreast of innovations in human capital management. Over the past few years I had read articles in Fortune Magazine, the local newspaper, and the like describing the ROWE ?movement? that had started at Best Buy. I read it all with particular interest, as the retailer?s world headquarters is located blocks from where I grew up. The idea that this paradigm shift had its inception in my backyard piqued my interest. I thought at the time (in 2008): ?How cool to work whenever I want, wherever I want. Too bad that would never fly in my hierarchical, conservative, public sector organization.? While the concept clearly resonated with me, I could not see how it would ever work within my organization and its deeply ingrained culture. Despite being one of the most innovative and well regarded state agencies in the country, my initial impression was that ROWE simply wasn?t for us. I felt it was a concept for those technology firms whose very DNA is predisposed to flexibility, freedom, creativity, and rapid pace — not exactly the descriptions that come to mind when describing the public sector.

The next few years were not easy. The Great Recession posed enormous challenges to all organizations, whether publicly held, private, not-for-profit, or government. With billion dollar state budget deficits, funding cuts, and multi-year salary and hiring freezes, many of us public sector human resources professionals found ourselves immersed in a world of contingency planning, reductions in workforce, reorganization, and the need to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources. It is easy to see how my interest in ROWE got crowed out in this mode of scarcity, risk aversion and hunkering down.
After a few years, our human resources management team — along with members of our labor-management committee — began to notice the toll that living this way was taking on employee morale. In the beginning of the recession, our employees were simply happy to have jobs. They watched neighbors and loved ones who were laid off experience struggles with long-term unemployment, and this realization and gratitude sustained them — initially. But years of having to do an increasing amount of work with a shrinking staff began to take their toll. The demands of constant organizational change ? and the public?s increasing expectations to provide improved services — staff members began to lose their resiliency.

The Economist (Overstretched, The Economist, May 22, 2010) referred to The Great Recession as the perfect storm for employee disengagement. Our HR management team began to take a deeper look at morale issues — and it became clear that we would be headed toward serious employee disengagement if we did not address emerging staff concerns.

In many ways, it took hitting bottom of the Great Recession and the resulting impact to compel our organization to take a hard look at our culture. We considered both our strengths and challenges as we became more open to solutions we would not have considered in the past. Despite the many drawbacks of organizational crisis, it does force change — and in our case, prompted us to examine the benefits that implementing a ROWE would bring.
After doing some research, our HR management team had identified a number of potential organizational risks associated with the morale issues: retaining our valued employees, attracting the best talent, productivity, and most of all, the need to maintain a highly engaged workforce in order to deliver upon our most ambitious organizational goal to date: transforming to a paperless e-government agency within three years. Moreover, we identified a future that used technology to serve the public across traditional boundaries.

Staff in one part of the organization (or working remotely) could process work for another location, regardless of where the work originated. Similarly, we envisioned the need to provide services to the public on a 24/7 basis. The need to prepare for the future of work — as well as our ability to attract employees from the Millennial/Generation Y age group — was rapidly approaching. We knew from our existing experience that the Millennial generation works very differently than previous generations had, and that our hierarchical structure was not likely to engage or retain these staff members over the long haul.

This was the backdrop for my fortuitous meeting with CultureRx. I explained to Cali [Ressler] in great detail the engagement challenges our human resources team had identified while Cali listened intently. I explained the ambitious set of organizational strategic priorities ahead, and emphasized that we needed every employee to be engaged in order to meet these goals. I felt both overwhelmed and relieved that Cali understood our predicament, as she explained that she was very confident that ROWE was the vehicle to address our challenges.

I had so many questions in that initial meeting. How could staff who must serve the public at our counters possibly work from anywhere, let alone anytime? Surely administrative support staff, who report to executives, would need to be in the office every day from 8 to 5. There must be staff like these who cannot work in a ROWE. Cali asked me, ?Is there anyone in your organization who does not have results to achieve? ROWE is about results. As long as you can focus on results, you can be in a ROWE.?

Something broke loose when she said that. At that moment, I began to see how ROWE — with its intense focus on results — was exactly the vehicle we needed for achieving accountability. Similarly, the corresponding freedom of ?do whatever you want whenever you want to reach your results? would serve as the empowerment we needed to ignite staff engagement.

Suddenly, it all became crystal clear. In a time where public sector organizations are facing intense scrutiny to deliver services to the public in the most effective and efficient ways possible, how could we not do everything in our power to promote workplaces that focus intensely on results? Members of the public increasingly expect government to provide services on par with our society as a whole. This means providing instant access to information, conducting routine business such as fee payment over the internet, and ensuring high quality customer service. In order to meet these expectations, our agency needed to retain our valued staff as the economy rebounded, compete for top talent as other organizations would begin to increase compensation, and motivate our staff — now more than ever.

Based on our ROWE experience, I firmly believe that billion dollar revenue deficits and double digit funding cuts can be the impetus for rapid innovation and efficiencies in proactive public sector organizations ? transformations that would have taken years to implement in a status-quo funding era. When it is a matter of survival, well-led public sector organizations are prompted to examine all aspects of operation, including long-held assumptions about where and how employees should get work done. I like to think we would have come to ROWE even if we did not have severe funding shortfalls and workforce reductions as precipitating events. Regardless, any public sector organization that feels that results are critical to achieving the organization?s mission and strategic priorities; that providing efficient and innovative service to the public and prudent and transparent use of resources are non-negotiable; and that engaged employees who are held accountable for achieving well-thought-out goals are crucial to achieving these ambitious goals cannot afford to ignore the changes that are happening all around us.

We in the public sector must take proactive measures to increase employee engagement and create workplaces that treat employees as adults with the freedom to work the way they want to work. This will position us to attract and retain a new generation of workers, and align with a future that uses technologies to serve the public in innovative ways.

[Quelle/Source (Link): Cali and Jodi Blog]