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In Hennepin County, the Office Is Where the Work Is

Minnesota county agency wants results, only

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The results-only work environment philosophy is easy to explain, even if it might be difficult to understand. "Essentially what it means is that people are working to results," Deb Truesdell says. "They know what their results need to be, and they're responsible for meeting them, and they're trusted to do that. You can work wherever and whenever as long as the work gets done." This is the hallmark of a results-only work environment (ROWE); employees are given expectations, and as long as they are met, no questions are asked and no judgments are made.

Kate Backen, a financial case aide at the Human Services and Public Health Department, does her work at a coffee shop.

Truesdell is the manager of ROWE and telework for the Human Services and Public Health Department (HSPHD) of Hennepin County, Minnesota, a CWLA member agency. HSPHD, the county's largest agency with around 2,700 staff, took advantage of a federal Department of Transportation grant that encouraged strategies for reducing traffic gridlock and cutting emissions. HSPHD already had some teleworking employees and wanted to expand, and ROWE seemed like the answer. It kicked off in the department in April 2009. CultureRx, the company behind ROWE, came in and trained HSPHD for several months, with the first group "migrating" to ROWE just over a year ago. The migrations, as CultureRx calls them, included a cross section of workers from HSPHD. "[They] took up a slice of each area of our department and made sure that every single type of work was included," Truesdell says. At the time of the interview, about half the staff had migrated; everyone at HSPHD will be in a ROWE by the end of 2011.

While it includes telework, a true ROWE is more than that. "It expects people to think about different ways of getting the job done," Truesdell says. "It's about, 'What are you accomplishing? Are you meeting the results that matter?' Unit by unit--'what are the results that you are working toward, do they make sense?'" She notes that the social workers in the department were actually operating with some ROWE-like autonomy to begin with, since many of them were "meeting the client where the client needs to be seen," outside of the office, and often outside of the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. ROWE "makes it be very legitimate that people are working different hours." Truesdell recalled a conversation with a senior social worker and her description of the team's reaction to ROWE. "She said, 'Deb, it gives them permission, and the knowledge that it is okay to do what they've been doing.'"

Still, some tenets of ROWE are harder to get used to than others. For example, under the philosophy, all meetings are optional. "People just almost had a heart attack when they saw that one," Truesdell recalls. But in practice, it has raised the bar for expectations of meetings. "You have the right to say, 'Hmm, gee, is there an agenda for this? What is it you need my presence for?'" She says it's important that employees understand they don't just blow off meetings--if they need to attend to get their work done, they do. But meeting just for the sake of meeting doesn't happen. HSPHD has cut down on the number of meetings in general, and many more have shifted to over-the-phone instead of in-person gatherings.

Another big change is the role of supervisors. "They're used to kind of being hall monitors," Truesdell says, making sure an employee is putting in the full 40 hours. Now they are able to do more coaching with staff, helping them solve problems or reach for the next level. Some supervisors struggle with their employees' growing autonomy as the power shifts, or fear that "working from home" doesn't actually mean "working."

But staff teams have been flexible, and Truesdell says more productive. She mentioned a 13-person unit that works to determine welfare eligibility. They determined they needed five people in the office each day for face-to-face interviews. "The other eight do their other work, back-end work, whenever and wherever they want to, as long as it gets done," she explains. From a big-picture standpoint, infrastructure costs shift. What an agency used to pay in mileage, gas, or parking, under ROWE might go to purchasing laptops or BlackBerrys for staff. Fewer people in the office means fewer square feet of office space is needed, saving on rent. Truesdell notes that because employees can find a work-life balance that is right for them, unused vacation time starts piling up. It makes for a happier, more engaged workforce--and makes HSPHD an employer of choice for prospective hires.

"Even at this early stage, we're seeing a pretty significant increase in productivity," Truesdell says. "It's probably one of the more significant changes we've ever attempted. I really think that this is going to be successful, and it's going to work." Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.


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