ROWE focuses on deep cultural and mindset shifts that help people thrive in their environments and accomplish big goals together.
There’s a lot of potential in the Results-Only Work Environment for you and your students to gain better autonomy, accountability, and results. Here’s how you and your students can experiment with a ROWE approach.
What exactly is a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)?
In 2003, Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler conducted an experiment at Best Buy headquarters, where they worked in human resources.
They were curious if framing employees’ work by their results (instead of “you have to be at your desk from X to Y”) would improve both company outcomes and employees’ experiences. Employees were told they needed to deliver X result by Y deadline. Where, when, and how they chose to do the work was up to them.
Between 2005 and 2007, productivity increased by 41% and employee turnover decreased by 90%. Founding CultureRx, home of the Results-Only Work Environment, Thompson and Ressler have helped other companies shift to this sort of a model.
I’m wary of cross-pollinating business ideas into the educational sector (the Industrial Revolution is what got us into our current structure), but this idea still has me thinking: how could ROWE help both teachers and students?
We can imagine that in the work-from-home boom of the pandemic (and the ensuing conflicts about returning to the office) that a ROWE would be quite popular, but ROWE is not just about working from home.
In fact, just sending workers off doesn’t equip them to produce the results, just like sending students off with just the textbook to produce “results” would lead nowhere. The mindset and culture it takes to center results demand a deeper level of change.
CultureRx has three core values that serve as the foundation for ROWE:
There may be some limitations in education. Autonomy is not something we perceive students or teachers having much of, and conversations about accountability and results are often used to coerce both parties into “better behavior.”
Let’s see what we can reclaim through the framing of these values from CultureRx.
Core value #1: Autonomy
Autonomous people govern themselves, but pure autonomy is rarely achievable. However, perceiving and practicing autonomy can thrive in most environments.
We might think of the following as examples of student autonomy:
- Playlists and self-paced learning
- Choice in tasks or texts
- Self-checklists and reflections
All worthy activities, but inherently not autonomous because for the most part, students have to go to school and then they must choose one of the choices we give them. And this, among other reasons, cause some students to struggle with self-directed learning.
Thompson and Ressler emphasize that just making these sorts of changes that promote flexibility are not the same as creating a ROWE culture. They share three points that generate deep autonomy:
Make work equitable for all.
When people feel like they’re not being treated fairly, any illusion of autonomy is gone. For example, it is hard to focus on what choices we do maintain as teachers when so many parts feel inequitable.
Self-advocacy, union participation, and quiet quitting are some possible responses for teachers. Quiet quitting is a fairly new label whose definition is still in flux, but the general idea is simply opting out of any extras for the sake of healthy work-life boundaries, something the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek practiced before it was cool.
In the classroom, teachers can look for opportunities to make sure students experience a similar level of difficulty and work for similar amounts of time. There can be equity of voice in class discussions and shared ownership of class decisions.
As much as possible, teachers can make sure everyone has the same tools and resources to access learning. The practices that disrupt white supremacy culture help set up classrooms for equity.
Enable employees to thrive in their professional and personal lives.
For students, this means not only addressing the standards but incorporating social-emotional learning and culturally relevant pedagogy. This is understanding your students’ goals and helping them connect those goals to the purpose of your course.
This goes both ways–where students see the class as a stepping-stone toward other goals AND shifting the course to help launch them toward those goals.
Teachers, seek your own thriving in your professional and personal life. Have goals and interests that stimulate you in both areas. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win. I
f you find yourself in a toxic culture, you have a few options: stay and wilt, bloom where you’re planted, or transplant yourself. Choose the one that will best help you thrive at this moment. For more ideas on dealing with this, check out Angela’s article on principals who don’t “get it.”
Liberate the potential of each person.
Every student is filled with potential that they may or may not release in our classes. Sometimes, they choose not to release it because they believe it will be wasted or go unrecognized. Other times, the students no longer see their own potential, so it is up to us to notice, name, and validate day in and day out how their particular strengths make them a perfect match for the work.
Liberate your own potential. The process of discovering what’s getting in your way could help you discover what’s getting in the way of your students. I’m willing to bet it’s some combination of circumstances and mindset.
For other ideas for teachers, check out this article:
When people are placed in equitable environments that promote not only their thriving but their potential, they see their autonomy recognized and move with it, no matter the task.
Core value #2: Accountability
The flip side of autonomy is accountability. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Spiderman’s uncle once said. Not blaming or excusing things not going your way. Part of autonomy is finding solutions around the problems–it’s not that there are never problems.
Often, accountability is linked to punishment and consequences. The students’ grades or evaluations are considered their consequences, ones that teach or reinforce accountability.
However, most students could not draw us a clear map from their efforts or learning or growth to their grades, circumventing the script of most morality plays involving grades.
Again, the strategies and tactics for holding people accountable (flawed or not) are surface-level changes. Instead, Thompson and Ressler suggest that we do the following.
Trust each other
Without trust, it is very difficult for people to hold themselves accountable. They are too afraid of how others will react, especially if they’ve made a mistake or fallen short in some way.
In the classroom, one way to build trust is to go on the offensive. Zaretta Hammond, in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, suggests a variety of trust generators.
- Share appropriate vulnerabilities and mistakes with students.
- See and connect with students regularly, especially as you run into them in your shared community (e.g. at the grocery store).
- Find common ground around hobbies, sports, etc.
- Show care about the things that are important to them (e.g. remembering details or asking follow-up questions).
- Demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and willing to help students.
These trust generators can also be practiced between adults. While we have no control over other people’s thoughts, we can attempt to build trust, and most importantly, we can trust ourselves.
Be creatively purposeful
To be purposeful is to know what you want to achieve, and to be creative about it is to be open in how you achieve it. This falls under accountability and not autonomy because being responsible means creating what you meant to create, not accepting when you get knocked off course.
This is mindset work that we can cultivate in ourselves or others, especially through coaching or asking good questions:
- How can this be easy?
- How can this be fun?
- How can I fulfill the purpose of X knowing that Y is the circumstance?
These sorts of questions give our brains an interesting problem to solve and positive answers to seek. Without exploring our creativity, it is all too easy to blame outside forces for our results rather than take responsibility.
Inspire engagement for continuous improvement
This is a process we are familiar with in theory as teachers. Development as professionals is about continuous improvement (or should be). If you find yourself in a rut, it may be time to re-engage yourself in continuous improvement.
Student education is typically focused on end goals (and then measured against the percentage of the attainment of those end goal). What if we engaged students in a culture of continuous improvement?
They could set weekly goals that could be related to content but could also be related to anything else they wanted–maybe a certain soft skill (like always putting their papers in their folder instead of shoving them in their backpack) or managing test anxiety through a certain strategy.
In a culture of continuous improvement, there is no finish line, so accountability just helps you keep moving forward.
When people work within a network of trust, knowing that everyone is striving for growth and creatively approaching the obstacles that always come, accountability becomes about more than blame.
Core value #3: Results
For the ROWE, results are the most important thing, so there are more factors here than in either of the other areas. These factors are about creating the inner and outer environment to produce results.
Deliver exceptional service
What does it mean to deliver exceptional service as a teacher? As a student?
While we’ve talked about the important protections of autonomy, an attitude of service is still necessary. It gets us (and students) out of our own heads. We need to take care of us, but if we only focus on us, we can easily fall into victimhood or martyrdom, which makes it harder to restore our agency.
By focusing on the value we bring to others, we can find deeper fulfillment that leads to better results. There is so much more we could do to engage our students as people who serve.
Remove limiting beliefs to become a game changer
Limiting beliefs are usually absolute and negative (with words like “can’t” or “never”–Angela talked about some common teacher ones here). These beliefs make you feel afraid or unworthy. Acknowledging and naming limiting beliefs can normalize the idea that we often create what we think, believing that we only think it because it’s created.
This has a huge impact on our results. Changing a limiting belief doesn’t happen overnight. The concept of cognitive ladders can help. Sometimes, the leap to a wide-open belief from a limiting belief is too large, and your brain will fight you on it. Instead, you start by thinking just a slightly better thought. When you are used to that, you move on until you reach your desired ideal belief.
For example, a student might believe, “I will never be good at math.”
They could be coached to the facts, “I got 60% on the last math test.”
Then to something neutral: “I take a math class.”
Then something with some promise: “I am still learning in math class.”
From there, it will depend on how big of a leap they want to take, like “I could be good at math,” or “I sometimes do well in math,” or “I can get better at math if I keep trying,” or maybe eventually, “I’m good at math.”
Adapt to the unknown
This is also mindset work. I think teachers have actually gotten pretty good at this in the last few years. For students, I’ll offer a few questions you could frame.
- What could be exciting about this?
- How could this go better than you’ve planned?
Meditation is another great tool for adaptability (check out this meditation mini-lesson for grades 3-8). It teaches you to let go of the outcome, which, somewhat ironically, is usually necessary to produce desired results.
Innovate in a caring way
I can definitely see where companies might innovate in such a way that they lose sight of their employees and customers. I see this less in an education setting, but there are some possibilities.
For example, I have known students to “innovate” around certain constraints and plagiarize. The root of this is survival and results, but it is uncaring innovation.
For teachers, sometimes this is something new we try in our classrooms that causes us to lose sight of our students, an overcorrection that comes down too hard or an innovation that sounds cool to us but does not match our students’ needs.
Create sustainable work cultures for long-term success
Sustainable is the name of the game. Can you sustain what you are doing in five-day stretches for the course of the school year? Can your students? What parts of the work feel unsustainable to them or you?
ROWE is designed to make a company or organization an irresistible workplace for today’s talent.
So it’s worth asking students, “What would make our classroom irresistible?”
Run with it. Have fun. Ask yourself what would make your school irresistible to you. I brought in an espresso machine, and I love it. That’s sort of a light answer, but this could be as light or heavy as you want.
A final caveat:
While the bulk of this article focuses on how to orient toward results, some care should be taken in determining crystal-clear results.
What are the results you want students to produce? What results do you want to produce?
Your results are your North star. The autonomy, accountability, and results-only environment are what get you there.
Before diving into any of the values of this article, I highly suggest that you define your exact results for you and have your students define their results for them, so the work is meaningful and relevant for everyone.
7th-12th Grade ELA
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