What would happen if your workplace stopped keeping track of how much holiday people took, and just let employees take as many days off as they wanted?
Imagine if there were no schedules, no deadlines, no assigned projects. You could work on whatever you wanted.
And what if the accounts were open to anyone, and employees could set their own salaries?
It might sound like a recipe for chaos and surefire bankruptcy, but those are all real life workplaces. The first is Netflix, which has had no holiday policy since 2004. The staff pointed out that they work at home and on weekends when they need to. Nobody keeps track of that, so why should the company log the afternoons off or late starts? “We should focus on what people get done, not how many hours or days worked” says the company.
The second company is Valve, which has no management. They make computer games and gaming platforms, and very successfully. Innovation is key, and in order to attract and foster the right sort of people, employees need the freedom to work on their own projects with nobody breathing down their necks. “Hiring someone is a sign of trust,” they say. “Extend that trust to every aspect of the position.”
The third example is Semco, a Brazilian conglomerate with multiple businesses and several thousand employees. Its radical overhaul began in the 80s, with staff given responsibility for their own quotas and working hours, and profits shared at every level. Employees were trained in financial literacy so they could understand the company accounts, and invited to set their own salaries – with all of them public, so you could see whether your estimation of your own worth was vaguely accurate or not.
I find it interesting that we live in a free market democracy that prizes the idea of personal liberty, but most of us spend the majority of our waking hours in highly regimented, hierarchical environments. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are more democratic ways of working, and they are tried and tested.
Politically, what I’m describing here is actually anarchism – democratic self-government in the workplace. It’s a fairly simple principle: if you treat people like adults, they’re more likely to behave like adults. If you have a set number of vacation days a year, and the company logs every last trip to the dentist or notices when you leave ten minutes early in the hope of missing a rain shower, you create a certain kind of culture. It’s a culture of suspicion and control, one that people will resent and push against.
On the other hand, if you can create an environment of trust, perhaps people would act responsibly. If everything is open to scrutiny, people could keep themselves accountable. The companies here have proved that, and if you can do it in the workplace, can you do it more generally?
- For more on this philosophy, see this profile of Ricardo Semler
- If you want your company to work this way, you could consult More Like People
- For other things that can be done in an open and participative way, see the latest issue of Stir Magazine