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Old Habits Die Hard: Adapting to ROWE


Charlie Maffitt

I had a dilemma. My sister-in-law was getting married five hours away in south Georgia, and I needed a day off so I could make it to the rehearsal dinner on Friday afternoon. But it was the first week at my new job at Big Nerd Ranch, and I wanted to make the best impression possible. I hesitated to ask for the day off, fearing I’d be branded a slacker for asking for time off so soon.  For a couple of days, I didn’t mention the wedding to anyone and even started to make plans to arrive on Saturday, though I’d miss the rehearsal dinner and quality family time with my in-laws.

The PRoblem with Presenteeism

We’ve written a lot about our Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). In short, ROWE emphasizes employee productivity. Rather than focusing on whether an employee is at their desk at 9 a.m. sharp, ROWE focuses on what that employee contributes, regardless of what time the work gets done.

For example, my lunch break was a sacred time in my previous jobs, because that was one of the only parts of the day that was “mine.” If I had an hour for lunch, I made sure I left the office, never returning to my desk until I had wrung out every tiny second of personal time. I certainly wasn’t going to do any work then, because that would be giving “my” time to my company for free!

But now that I work in a ROWE, I typically eat lunch at my desk while working, which allows me to eat and be productive at the same time. I don’t have to cram all my personal errands into my lunch break, because now I can get those done any time I need to. I’m no longer trying to kill time until 5 p.m.

Instead, I’m now geared towards being efficient, so that I can get as much done as possible while I’m in the office, which in turn allows me to spend less time at the office and more time at home. After all, the earlier I finish my work, the earlier I can go home and enjoy personal time on my own terms, rather than trying to wrestle a tiny bit of it back from my employer during my lunch break.

My feelings of guilt over wanting to take Friday off to go to a family wedding were the result of more than a decade of conditioning; they had been planted there years before by managers and organizations who didn’t trust me to get my work done unless I was in my chair for eight hours a day.

the solution

The situation was actually quite simple: As a brand-new employee, I didn’t yet have any major projects or clients. It would not negatively impact a single member of my team if I were to take that Friday off. I was being silly about the whole thing. I immediately contacted my supervisor and told him about the wedding, and without hesitation I was given the day off. I was trusted to get my work done for the week, even if I wasn’t in the office on Friday. I also could have chosen to work from the wedding if I thought I had left something undone; one of the best things about ROWE is that it lets you work wherever, whenever is best for you.

the challenges of rowe

When I first heard about ROWE, I thought it would be pretty easy to adopt. As it turns out, I’ve found that it can be difficult to shed the old habits and mindsets that traditional workplace environments have instilled in me.

I still sometimes wrestle with internal guilt if my lunch break goes longer than an hour, or if I sleep in one morning to make up for a late night of coding. During those times I have to step back and remind myself to objectively evaluate my results, using the tools provided me for this purpose: Pivotal Tracker, Reflecticle, and ROWEapp. With these tools, I can ask myself:

  • Have I finished everything I promised to someone else?

  • Have I produced the results I committed to in our internal tracking app?

  • Have I set and met clearly defined goals?

These days, I see the workplace for what it really can be: a place where driven, intelligent, self-motiviated people work together to accomplish a common goal while preserving their own unique personal interests and lives. ROWE doesn’t work without trust between employers and employees, and I believe this trust is the foundation of a better workplace experience for everyone.

The last challenge as one embraces ROWE is to overcome the years of conditioning, to break ourselves of the old habits we developed to survive or “game” the traditional system, and replace them with this system based on trust and personal responsibility, which in my case has already made me a happier, more independent and productive developer.


Charlie Maffitt

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