Lee Schafer
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The massive experiment underway with office staff working from home won’t end anytime soon. And the New York Times last week reminded people of some less-than-successful remote work experiences of the past.

That included one at Best Buy Co.

The reasons some employers canned flexible work programs were what you would expect: Workers felt less connected to work and thus less loyal, and creativity slowed down. Yet those seem like correctable management mistakes, not unfixable problems with working from home.

And to see Best Buy on this list of employers that went back to a more traditional structure was another reminder that what Best Buy was trying to do may still not be understood. That includes even knowing that it wasn’t about being allowed to telecommute.

The lessons here are still useful, too, at least for managers who don’t want to treat this period as just making do until everyone can safely come back into work.

Work from home, remote working, whatever you want to call it, these are all terms that bug Jody Thompson, an author and CEO of the Twin Cities-based consulting firm CultureRx. She was a principal player when Best Buy tried to create a different structure for work.

These terms serve only to emphasize an old-fashioned notion that an office is where work is supposed to get done, and to call it “remote work” just reminds people it might even be a special perk.

As Thompson has been teaching now for more than 15 years, work is just work.

As a manager with Best Buy, Thompson was one of the leaders of what came to be called the Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, which the company rolled out about 15 years ago.

The main idea is that individual staffers got complete autonomy to get their own work done, including where and when, with no one hovering. The other side of the deal, though, was the clear understanding that staffers would be held fully accountable for agreed-upon results.

The work of a manager was reimagined, too. Instead of managing the person — what they were working on, setting expectations for when they needed to come and go, even picking their daily priorities — the manager oversaw the actual work.

That required putting careful thought into the results the company wanted.

Sales managers need increased sales, of course, but how exactly do you manage for that outcome? It’s easier to manage somebody’s day — and closely monitor how many outbound calls were made, how many video meetings had been booked, how many proposals sent out and so on.

Doing that, though, is just another example of managing the person.

In a check-in video call, Thompson said a manager should ask an employee something like: So how is it going on what we have agreed you need to deliver? And what help do you need from me?

The manager, she said, must be as clear and specific as possible about what is required and by when. “Most language of work is ambiguous,” she added.

“Sometime next week” is just not helpful, nor is asking for a report “ASAP,” particularly when another ASAP demand arrives from an executive further up the organization chart.

Neither might really be urgent. With greater clarity about what is really needed, the employee could decide which one to work on first.

While working from home isn’t the point of ROWE, Thompson questions the value of collecting everybody into an office. She sounded impatient with my main objection to working from home, and that is giving up the chance for unplanned, face-to-face conversation that leads to new ideas and problems getting solved.

Imagine that two colleagues waiting for an elevator and then sharing the ride come up with a good idea, she said. Should the lesson be to ride the elevator all morning?

If managers want open conversations for idea generation and problem-solving, she said, then they need to work at that, too.

ROWE continues to be championed by Thompson, having been implemented in some form at dozens of organizations. It largely went away at Best Buy in 2013, amid the urgency of trying to turn around corporate performance, including what management called simply “all hands on deck.”

What really set back ROWE as a concept, Thompson said, was how then CEO Hubert Joly described it as a one-size-fits-all form of delegation, when delegating responsibility can’t always be the best management choice.

Of course, delegation could describe pretty much all work assigned to somebody else, from the CEO on down. The publisher of the Star Tribune, for example, could maybe write a better business column than I do, if he only had the time.

Now, of course, many managers can’t see their workers and can’t easily know if they are really working on their assignments at 8 a.m.

And without the familiar feel and flow of work at the office, Thompson wonders if the temptation might be to keep managing people but even more aggressively. Of course, that could turn someone’s workday into one long string of Zoom calls. Happy hour couldn’t come soon enough.

“Work from home hasn’t changed anything,” Thompson said. “People think it’s changed everything, but again, we’re not changing how we manage. And if it was a real change and it was better, [companies] wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get everybody back in the office.”