My EOx talk on empowerment, trust, and freedom in the workplace

EOx is a quarterly event put on by the Atlanta chapter of Entrepreneurs Organization. They invite entrepreneurs to give a brief talk on “entrepreneurial ideas worth sharing.”

Outside of Forum, EOx is my favorite EO event, and I was honored to have the opportunity to speak to this crowd. Joining me at the podium that night were Robert Dreesch, Benjamin Rudolph, and Reid Smith-Vaniz of Reliant Technology (one of my forum mates). Last quarter, two other forum mates shared their stories: CBQ of Big Nerd Ranch and Sean Cook of ShopVisible. Set aside an hour, and listen to what they have to say.

For my talk, I decided to share the short version of how our company switched from a rather conventional organizational path to the path we’re on today. To pack it into eight minutes, I left out a ton of stuff, but I tried to hit all the high points. Let me know what you think!

Speakeasy deserves some special thanks. They are one of EO’s sponsors and helped all the presenters (me especially) avoid looking and sounding like complete fools. ATV hosted us, and Friendly Human aced the video production.

Policy is like a cast

Policies and procedures, hierarchy, and bureaucracy are similar to a cast, a brace, or a splint. They’re incredibly useful to immobilize a broken bone so that it will heal. They remove judgment from the equation: If you want to move beyond the limits of your hobble, you can’t. That sort of limitation is something you need if your culture is broken and you’re trying to help it heal, but it’s something you definitely don’t want if you’re healthy.

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer recognized this when she began restricting Yahoo employees’ freedom to work remotely. Remote employees were struggling to be productive, and their results clearly showed it. That represented systemic failures across the board in hiring, onboarding new folks, leadership, and communication, and those failures had injured the organization so severely that the first step in repairing the damage was to introduce restrictions that would allow Yahoo’s bones to heal. If Yahoo does well, that healing will come via the departure of people who aren’t committed to the company’s success, through improved communication, through better leadership, through more selective hiring, and through more diligent onboarding.

For a healthy limb, broad range of movement is critical to strength. Artificial restrictions on motion weaken muscles, and the lack of use eventually causes bone brittleness. So if you are relying on a cast, splint, or brace to prevent injury from happening, you’re making yourself more susceptible to injury.

Once Yahoo has healed its bones, Mayer can (and hopefully will) strip off the cast, and focus on strengthening muscles.

When working remotely works, and when it doesn’t

We don’t have a policy about where, when, or how people should work. This flexibility is pretty easy to manage with only a half dozen folks, and it takes great effort to scale. We’re now at 18 full time people, with about half working remotely most or all of the time.

In my experience thus far, making the return greater than the investment requires a focus on hiring the right sort of folks, onboarding them in a way that makes them a fully-engaged part of the team, and fostering a culture that supports both remote and on-site employees.

When remote working breaks down, I believe it’s a product of bad hiring decisions, missteps in the onboarding process, an unsupportive culture, or a combination of all three.

When considering whether or not to restrict employees’ freedom to work in the manner and location they choose, managers and leaders must make a decision about where to invest their time: Do they wish to invest in policy and oversight or in culture and empowerment? Both require a great deal of effort, carry their own risks, and produce different sorts of rewards. Neither is right for everyone. In my experience, the empowered work environment requires considerably more effort, and is considerably more rewarding.

Adaptability and the dangers of specialization

If you are a part of an empowered work environment, or seek to cultivate empowerment in your business, I encourage you to check out James Scott’s new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. It’s an astonishingly (and perhaps unintentionally) relevant business book for people who seek to foster decentralization, freedom, openness, and accountability within their businesses. From the fourth chapter:

…static conditions are the exception rather than the rule. …the larger the repertoire of skills a worker has, and the greater her capacity to add to that repertoire, the more adaptive she is likely to be to an unpredictable task environment and, by extension, the more adaptable an institution composed of such adaptable individuals is likely to be.

When we’re speaking with prospective employees about joining the GuildQuality team, we look for three characteristics: Friendliness, Commitment, and Resourcefulness. Friendliness helps us to get along and makes it easier to provide great service for our clients. A committed team engenders trust. And resourcefulness reinforces and cultivates our organization’s adaptability.

Contrast the organization filled with adaptable people to an organization oriented around specialization (aka Fordism). I’m beginning to think that specialization brings only short-term benefit to organizations and workers, constrains the options of the specialized worker, and hampers the flexibility and nimbleness of the company as a whole. In order to be flexible, the company with specialized workers must either be able to quickly retrain or repurpose employees or they must inevitably fire people en masse. In order to be retrained or repurposed, workers must be open to change and willing to adapt. If a worker has prospered from doing the same thing over and over again for several years, she may find it difficult to change, no matter how much encouragement she receives from her organization. As a result, companies confronted with changing landscapes must fire their specialized workers. Firing people then makes it harder to hire the people they actually need, which in turn hampers the long-term health of the organization.

In contrast, a worker with broad skills and willingness and interest in cultivating new skills will always be able to make a living and enjoy her work.

An important note: A specialized person is not the same as a person who has specialties. In order to prosper, people need to develop specialties without shedding their adaptability. The Valve employee handbook refers to these people as “T-shaped.” Companies filled with T-shaped workers are more likely to prosper over the long haul while providing each worker a fulfilling environment in which to continue their cultivation of skills.

Liberty and Dependence in the Workplace

If libertarianism is defined at its core by its commitment to maximizing individual freedom, than a failure to apply that standard in the workplace demonstrates that libertarianism fails to live up to its own moral standard.

That’s from this thought-provoking post on private sector abridgments to freedom via Bleeding Heart Libertarians. As a liberty-loving employer, this is something I think about a lot.

Work should be liberating, not enslaving. That idea is what attracts me to Results Only Work Environments, and it’s why I’m always encouraging folks to either start their own businesses or to pursue a path with companies who value their employees’ freedom and well-being.

But freedom is a slippery concept. Freedom’s antithesis is slavery, and coercion isn’t the only thing that leads to slavery. Indulgence, protectionism, and nannying foster dependence — and dependence is a subtle and insidious form of slavery.

So lately, I’ve been asking myself, “What can we do to ensure that our environment is always a place where our people are able to leave, and choose to stay?”

Irony: I just ordered several tricked out MacBooks for the team.