“Make your business a place where people want to come to work.”

Yahoo! just issued a “confidential” note on working from home to everybody in the company, saying that if you have an arrangement on working from home, you probably heard about the contents of the note from your boss. This article points out how silly this is, except if the note was a marketing attempt at getting the attention back to the company Yahoo!.

…when my company remodeled its first office, we built it around a bar…”

But the article also makes a much more interesting point. If your people don’t want to come to the office, there’s nothing wrong with the people. There’s something wrong with the office. Make sure your office is inviting and people will want to hang around. The author gives the example of having a bar inside the company where you can have all sorts of parties. I was wondering: why not design it as a coffee shop ?  You can even add bookshelves for that extra je-ne-sais-quoi.

It sounds a bit scary, gathering your employees in an area that is clearly meant for entertainment. But it makes sense. I have a lot of good and serious discussions in bars and coffee shops. Instead of letting the coffee shop set the context for the discussion, the idea is to let the company set the context for the coffee shop. When the people in your organisation become more independent, they will need places to meet and to be introduced to others. It fits perfectly in the trend that companies are becoming organisational contexts, rather than hierarchical pyramids. The author touches on a tool that has been designed to allow this, even without being in the office. There’s a lot more work to be done on collaboration for independent workers and it’s nice to see examples of where this has been implemented before.

Netflix culture: freedom & responsibility

Netflix has a corporate culture that it is quite proud about. They explain it in a slide stack that is publicly available here. It starts as follows:

“Values are what we value.”

That sounds so simple it’s almost silly. But living up to it requires a more open and honest attitude than many companies would like. You have to explain what you value and make all your judgements in a manner consistent with these values. It is therefore not a coincidence that the slides continue:

Enron, whose leaders went to jail, and which went bankrupt from fraud, had these values displayed in their lobby: Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence (These values were not, however, what was really valued at Enron)

True to their word, Netflix continues explaining what their values are and how they work to show these values. They oppose this to nice sounding values, those nice sounding soundbites from marketing departments like Enron’s. Netflix also walks the walk.

The basic principles are similar to my ideas: give your employees freedom to do their job well, help them, and guide them by giving them a context to work in. The slide stack compares it to a number of traditional management approaches quite well, so I encourage you to check out the link for the presentation.

“Why centralised decisions tend to fail”

Nassim Taleb has written a nice article on Edge that builds up a theory of what my gut feeling is. Decentralised organisations, in my opinion, work better because they rely on the brains of all the people involved instead of on the brains of a few managers, with the rest executing the work. Orchestrating the work of many is harder than just chopping up the plans of one individual to delegate it to several others. This is a sort of complexity that I touched upon in my previous blog post in the context of irregular work hours.

Taleb’s enters the discussion from a different direction. He compares “tinkering” with strategy based work, in a very theoretical way. Tinkering allows you to try out a lot of things quickly and, if you do it correctly, to maximise your best case result. You can make notes on what works, keeping them as “options” for future work. By trying many approaches and working short-term, you stay flexible and you can opt out of bad decisions early on (and put more effort into good ones). In this way, Taleb shows that rigid planning and strategy don’t really pay off. Interestingly, the contradictory approach of working short-term allows you to get to your long term goals faster and more effectively. It could explain why a rigid planning system in the Soviet Union wasn’t competitive to the decentralised market principles of the Western world.

I like Taleb’s way of explaining things. It starts out feeling like a dry theoretical article. In fact, he works from the world and introduces a number of scientific techniques to assist him.

Edit: I just found this article on FastCompany that indicates the same thing. You can’t be sure of what is going to happen in your industry. So, stop that five year plan already and start some serious experimenting. More ideas and experiments mean more chance to hit something useful. That’s why companies like Google give free time to employees to work on their own projects and the chance to continue when a project looks promising. It’s how gmail got started.

Collaborating in a non-9-to-5 environment

Everybody seems to agree that it’s a good idea to stop working like we did in the 1960s: flex time, working from home, time-outs and free times have been slowly gaining in popularity. I agree, too, and I’d like to take things even further. When everybody is in control of his job content, he can also control his working hours.

Unfortunately, there are complications that come with the new system. When somebody calls you during your time off with an urgent request, what happens ?  This is exactly the problem that BCG was facing. Their consultants are traditionally assumed to be available for work 24/7. That made it hard for some consultants who loved their jobs, but required more private time. The solution was quite drastic: BCG decided to share everybody’s work. A project is not yours alone, it’s 80% yours and 20% somebody else’s. An article on FastCompany describes this change.

The focus of the article is more on the advantages of slowing down, so it doesn’t cover the most important side-effect of this change. When you’re not alone doing a job, you need to keep the others up-to-date on the progress. Another article, also on FastCompany, talks about this aspect of going flexible. Delegation and collaboration become an important part of any job. This is to everybody’s advantage. The customers get more guarantees that the job will get done, even if somebody is out for a while. At the same time, employees don’t feel like the entire project rests on their shoulders. An approach like the 80-20 idea of BCG means more flexibility and more resilience for the organisation. But it requires organisation and collaboration.

There’s quite a lot to think about in these two articles. I see some opportunity for ICT to build new tools that help with this sort of team organisation. But in the end, it is up to the people to collaborate, no matter which tool they use. This requires a change in mentality on all levels: become aware that you are a coordinator and not just a worker. It means giving up the security of owning “your” project. But it also means that you get to work more closely with your colleagues, which is a more social way of job appreciation. And it flattens the organisation, so you are more your own boss.

Companies working on sustainability are more profitable

What many of us expected, turns out to be true. If your company starts looking at improving sustainability of your products, then your profitability will go up. This is good news by itself. But it gets even better. The best guarantee to get profit is to change your business model to incorporate sustainability.

It’s nice to see this proven in a scientific study by respected organisations. There have been companies who used corporate social responsibility as a marketing tool. Throwing a pile of money at a good cause doesn’t help if the attitude towards the rest of the world stays rotten. An in-depth change in attitude, combined with performance measurements, is what works. It works better for the cause of sustainability. Now it turns out that it also works better for the organisation that implements it.

Read the article: 5 Lessons From The Companies Making Sustainability More Profitable Than Ever.

Reinventing the reward system

There’s been a lot going on about reward systems. The VIGOR research group has already scientifically proven that different types of rewards produce different types of results: individual rewards require autonomous and even competitive behaviour to work, whereas collective rewards work when the participants can discuss and negotiate.

An article on FastCompany discusses the specific case of the Millenials, people who grew up knowing only a world that has mobile phones and Internet. It’s easy to see that our current traditional working model will give problems when the company is flooded with people who are used to setting up peer-to-peer relations and social networks. There will be a clash with the hierarchical nature of companies and the concept of yearly performance reviews. The new trend is to get instant feedback and recognition for what you do. The article mentions a service, work.com, that uses social technologies to provide continuous coaching and feedback. While it’s always nice to see initiatives in this area, nothing beats a bespoke approach tailored to a specific organisation.

The article makes me think that decentralised organisations and employee emancipation will be a given at a certain point in time. The next generation of our workforce won’t expect anything else. The time to prepare it is now.