Leadership and culture

The honey badger doesn’t care where your employees work. You shouldn’t, either.

Published on October 27, 2021

Remember the honey badger, that diminutive, cocky apex predator exalted by the internet in 2011? One NSFW video and countless spin-offs made it abundantly clear why it sits at the top of the food chain: The honey badger don’t care.

Today, the honey badger should be every employee’s spirit animal, from the most junior admin to the most senior executive. Wringing your hands and gnashing your teeth over where you or your team members work—onsite, offsite, or hybrid? Your inner honey badger doesn’t care. 

In fact, your honey badger doesn’t care about a lot of today’s workforce challenges. What it cares about are the results you and your team produce. It knows that if you take care of the results, all the other issues—work location, hours, deadlines, collaboration, promotions, culture, and the rest—will take care of themselves.

Rise of results

In “How to attain sustainable remote work,” Cal Newport updates the honey badger mindset with a more contemporary and nuanced perspective. “Our pandemic experiment with remote work has reset our expectations about where and when work takes place,” said the associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and New Yorker contributing writer.

“[To] radically change when and where work happens in your organization while still achieving results, you also have to change the very definition of ‘work’ itself, moving it away from surveillance and visible busyness, and toward defined outcomes and trust,” Newport said. That move “makes remote work sustainable—it can also change the very nature of our jobs into something more enjoyable, and productive, and in tune with the unequal and unpredictable demands of life.”

Newport sharpens the honey badger’s POV with a crucial insight: Focusing on results doesn’t just get the work done; it transforms the work itself. And the transformation isn’t a happy accident. It’s a necessity anticipated by theoretical physicist Max Planck—and self-help author Wayne Dyer—who observed, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Yes, your mileage may vary. The degree and pace of change will depend on the person making the change. But even an office intern can adopt a results-focused mindset to improve their own productivity and sense of job satisfaction. And those results can instill self-trust and foster trust inside teams, among colleagues, and within the company at large.

ROWE’d to the future

When you’re ready to cultivate a results-focused mindset, you won’t find a more fitting management strategy than the results-only work environment, or ROWE. Pioneered by CultureRx founders Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, a ROWE is deceptively simple, highly adaptable, and 100% results focused.

In a ROWE, “each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done,” said Thompson, defining a ROWE for Kevin Kermes’s All Things Career audience. “That means each person has 100% autonomy and 100% accountability. …You’re really in control of your entire life. You’re an adult.”

When you’re 100% accountable, you understand what the work is, accept responsibility for it, and make sure it gets done. You know and agree with what measurable results look like, and you achieve them. You communicate objectively with your manager and others about the work.

When you’re 100% autonomous, you’re independent and self-governing. You have control over your time and are responsible for managing your own time. ROWE teams don’t dictate your schedule or require you to ask permission to work how, when, or where you want. A ROWE only requires you to achieve top-notch results.

There’s a lot to unpack in those explanations, but the heart of the matter is this: In a ROWE, accountability and autonomy demand a shift in workplace collaboration. As Newport points out, the shift is a move from casual interaction to formal, “structured negotiation: what exactly is being asked, when exactly is it needed, and what other communication will be required between now and then to get it done?”

Derailing a ROWE

While clarity, precision, negotiation, and communication are essential skills in a ROWE, they’re often underdeveloped and in short supply at the organizations that need them. Establishing clear results—what’s expected and when—may be the biggest hurdle to ROWE success, according to Reza Hooda, an accountant coach and mentor who adopted ROWE at his UK-based accounting firm, Walji & Co.

“Employers struggle to articulate what is being expected [from employees],” Hooda said in a conversation with CultureRx’s Thompson. “You can’t expect employees to know what that work is and what those results are and how they should be held accountable if you haven’t actually articulated that. If that isn’t clear to you, how do you expect it to be clear to your employees?”

The answer, of course, is that you can’t expect to find clarity where none exists. And as we’ll see, the absence of clarity—about the work and results—leads to fears that can undermine if not fatally derail a ROWE.

Fear of diminished productivity. “How do I know my employees are actually working?” That question sums up managers’ fear of reduced team productivity in a ROWE. While it’s especially acute for teams with members who work remotely, it can emerge regardless of work location.

In a ROWE, work is measured by results, not time spent working. Work equals results, period.  So you know your team is working when they’re producing results. It’s obvious that people are working—or not working—in a ROWE. The results are the proof of work.

Productivity does present a problem, but it’s not a problem with ROWE. It’s a problem with the work and the results, or more accurately, their pervasive ambiguity. We don’t know what results we’re supposed to produce, not exactly. Since we can’t use results to measure work, we fall back on measuring work as we always have, i.e., time spent working.

When work equals time, you need to see people working if you’re a manager. And you need to be seen working if you’re an employee. People need to be onsite, at their desks, for their eight-hour workday. If they’re offsite, working remotely, they need to be available online for those eight hours.

The thing is, people can look like they’re working without really working, without producing any results. “In the workplace, if you don’t do your job, you can still get a paycheck,” Thompson said to Hooda. “So if I come into an office and do my time, and sort of do some stuff and look like I’m working, I can still get a paycheck.”

In Newport’s article, the folly of mistaking activity for productivity is captured in an exchange between Thompson and one of her CultureRx clients: “‘How will I know people are working if I can’t see them?’ [the client] asked. ‘How do you know they’re working just because they’re in the office?” Thompson replied. ‘People are sitting in their cubes, going to meetings, grumbling about how busy they are, but are they actually making progress on measurable results?’”

The antidote to productivity fear is not better surveillance or monitoring technologies to verify that you or your employees are working. The antidote is clearly defined work and expected results, so you can verify that the work has produced the results.

Fear of a degraded ecosystem. In contrast to productivity, which refers to work and results, the ecosystem refers to the environment in which work is done and results are delivered. The ecosystem includes work relationships, team building, onboarding, corporate culture, esprit de corps, trust, and other intangibles that impact the environment we work in and consequently the work itself.

You can’t measure the intangibles, but you can certainly feel them. And the fear is that the quality of those intangibles and the overall ecosystem will noticeably degrade in a ROWE, whether you’re a manager or an employee, and especially if you work remotely.

The thinking goes that a healthy ecosystem requires employees to be in the office, interacting in person, face-to-face. And if you liberate people from the 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday office grind and let them work where they want, when they want—as long as the work gets done—the ecosystem will collapse.

That’s apparently what Apple CEO Tim Cook was thinking when he called for employees to return to the office on a hybrid basis of three days onsite, two days remote, per week. According to The Verge, Cook said, “For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other… Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

True, video conferencing cannot replicate in-person interaction, at least not yet. But is being onsite, in-person “essential”? Not for roughly 2,200 Apple employees who cited 2020 as “another-record setting year” and said they feel “better-connected…than ever” with their colleagues around the world. Clearly, being in the office is not essential to productivity or to maintaining a healthy company ecosystem for those Apple employees.

The antidote to collapse of the company ecosystem is not dragging everyone into the office or enforcing availability with arbitrary attendance policies for onsite, remote, and hybrid workers. The antidote is clearly identifying the intangibles you want to cultivate and then taking intentional, deliberate action to that end.

Results redux

The ROWE mindset can simplify and streamline life for people throughout the organization. Adopting that mindset, however, is far from simple. ROWE flies in the face of longstanding traditions and deeply held beliefs about work, including where and when it’s performed, what it is, and how it’s measured. You have to break with conventional wisdom to embrace ROWE. You have to be immune to criticism and disbelief. You have to care about results only and not care about the rest—the perfect job for your inner honey badger.

  

Thanks for reading. ROWE will be an on-going subject of our Insights coverage. Please subscribe to our mailing list if you’d like to get those upcoming stories delivered directly to your inbox.

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