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Why you don’t have flex schedules: OPM’s failed 1-year experiment

Dec. 16, 2012 - 02:04PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
John Berry is director of the Office of Personnel Management.
John Berry is director of the Office of Personnel Management. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)

When Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry launched an unprecedented experiment in flexible work scheduling two years ago, he had high hopes it might ultimately transform the federal workplace.

“If flexibility can succeed in the federal government,” Berry said, “it can succeed anywhere.”

OPM’s experiment was called the Results-Only Work Environment program, or ROWE, a unique management style first piloted at Best Buy in 2003. The ROWE method gives employees complete control over when and where they work, as long as they get the job done.

But in the end, the inability of managers to hold employees accountable for their performance scuttled the project.

According to a December 2011 report prepared by consulting firm Deloitte — obtained exclusively by Federal Times through a Freedom of Information Act request — OPM managers proved unable to hold poor performers accountable, work quality slumped in some cases, and employees had no idea if they were succeeding because they weren’t getting enough manager feedback. The pilot fizzled and was abandoned after a year in the field.

OPM did not respond to requests for comment. Berry told reporters in March that ROWE ended up being “a mixed bag.”

“We tried it, and we gave it a good run,” Berry said in March. “We’re not doing it anymore.”

But Jody Thompson, who helped create ROWE with colleague Cali Ressler in 2003 when they worked at Best Buy, thinks OPM gave up too soon and didn’t make the culture changes necessary for the project to succeed.

Thompson pointed to one of Deloitte’s key findings: While the performance of the top 25 percent of claims processers who took part in the pilot improved, the performance of the middle 50 percent and the bottom 25 percent worsened.

Deloitte found several problems with managing employees during OPM’s ROWE pilot, which ran from August 2010 to August 2011:

• Most employees knew how their performance would be evaluated, but they weren’t sure if they were meeting targets because managers weren’t providing frequent, adequate feedback. As a result, employees who weren’t getting the job done didn’t feel like they needed to improve. Managers said they weren’t sure how to enforce performance targets in such a flexible work environment — especially if the work employees produced wasn’t quantifiable or easily defined.

• Performance management was applied inconsistently. Some managers removed performance standards during the first phase of the pilot and, as a result, production and other performance measures dropped considerably.

• Managers said they felt ill-equipped to measure employees’ performance, reward high performers and hold poor performers accountable.

Deloitte said the improvement in productivity of top performers during the pilot “suggests that a results-focused workplace is most effective for performers who already have the ability to perform autonomously.”

But Thompson said the solution is to fire underperformers.

“The consequences of not performing well shouldn’t be, we’re taking away your flexibility,” Thompson said. “It’s, you don’t get to work here anymore. It’s the inability to hold employees accountable [in the government] that’s keeping ROWE from taking root.”

Thompson said OPM’s decision to abandon ROWE was disheartening.

“When we went to OPM to do the pilot, our hope was that they would step up to the plate and recognize weakness in their performance management and take that on,” Thompson said. “Not stop ROWE, which is a foundation through which performance management can thrive. We saw with the OPM data, before we went in with ROWE, we knew people weren’t performing. Why weren’t they taking care of that before?”

Thompson and Ressler’s company, CultureRX, has brought ROWE to companies such as Gap Inc. as well as parts of the Hennepin County government in Minnesota. Thompson said OPM subcontracted with CultureRX, through consulting firm ICF International, to help set up ROWE and train employees and managers. She said usually CultureRX guides its clients further after the initial training, but OPM never asked for more help.

After ROWE’s demise, OPM launched a new effort to improve performance management called Goals-Engagement-Accountability-Results, or GEAR. Berry said in March that the lessons learned from ROWE will help initiatives such as GEAR.

But Thompson fears that GEAR won’t succeed unless the government takes real steps that allow federal managers to hold poor performers accountable. “There’s still that piece that’s missing — managers being able to hold people accountable for results,” Thompson said. “With GEAR or anything like that, you need to say here’s exactly what we expect, here’s how we measure, and either you perform to that or you don’t have a job.”

Thompson said many factors keep federal managers from disciplining or firing underperforming employees, such as complicated rules and grievance procedures, union protections, an unawareness of the options available for managers who need to take action and a real or perceived lack of support from senior leaders when they do.

“There’s so many things that managers need to know and understand,” Thompson said. “If we can distill it to performance and be real clear about that, it’s easier for managers to work with [human resources] to manage that person out of the organization. If everybody [is] crystal clear on measurable performance, it’s not personal then.”

In March, Berry said employees’ goals under ROWE weren’t set clearly enough and the metrics used to hold employees accountable for getting their work done also were lacking. Also, communication between employees and managers was inadequate, Berry said, and OPM didn’t do enough training to prepare everyone involved.

Employees who did not participate in the ROWE pilot said ROWE employees were less likely to respond to their phone calls and supervisors’ requests in a timely manner and were less committed to helping as much as possible, according to the Deloitte report.

ROWE did succeed in at least one thing: improving employees’ morale. The percentage of employees who felt they were “highly engaged” increased 12 percentage points, to 56 percent. Satisfaction with their organization increased 10 percentage points, satisfaction with work-life balance increased 18 percentage points, and the percentage of employees who felt they had the necessary resources to do their job increased 17 percentage points.

The amount of sick and personal leave taken by ROWE employees also decreased. Deloitte said pilot employees highly valued the flexibilities the experiment gave them.

But while employees’ productivity under ROWE was questionable, managers thought more highly of them as the pilot proceeded. Deloitte said managers rated 82 percent of participants as “high performers” at the end of the project — 10 percentage points higher than at the beginning.

“While there may be several potential explanations as to why performance assessments have generally increased, it raises the question as to the degree to which employee performance is linked to organizational performance,” the report said.

One ROWE participant who processes retirement claims, but asked to remain anonymous, said it was a wonderful program that should not have been cancelled. The workplace flexibility allowed him to efficiently work around doctor appointments or other personal matters, and use less leave.

“It was the perfect balance of mixing work and life events,” he said.

He said that after ROWE’s flexibilities were taken away last year, the productivity of retirement claims processors immediately slumped. He said that a month later, his managers restored some — but not all — of the flexibilities under ROWE and things improved.

“I believe this renewed flexibility is one of the main reasons we have been able to tackle the [pension] backlog so successfully,” he said. “Just imagine what we could have done had ROWE never ended.”

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