[This is part 7 of an 8 part series: The Barefoot Philosphy. It is based on my experiences as the founder of a business—Barefoot Software—which I ran for 12 years. Please start with the intro.]
We’ve described all the cornerstones of the Barefoot Philosophy. So, when you put it all together, what does it all mean?
That’s a tough question. As I say, at the time I was involved in “the Grand Experiement.” I was interested in proving a bunch of people wrong, and making a bunch of other people happy, and providing a kickass workplace (and a comfortable living) to as many people as I could manage. I didn’t look much beyond that.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect, and now that I’ve gone back to working for others, and had a chance to find a few not-so-terrible (if still imperfect) workplaces to compare against, I think I can finally put my finger on what it all means. I think that all employees want three things out of their jobs:
And, when you think about it, those three things are not so much to ask. They’re essential to basic human dignity, in fact. But they’re mighty rare in today’s corporate workplaces.
Of course, none of those things can be unconditional. Respect and trust must be earned; it isn’t just handed out to anyone who walks in the door. Freedom is not absolute: it doesn’t mean that anyone can do anything they want. There are caveats aplenty with all three. But let’s consider each one briefly.
Respect means you listen to what people have to say. In my line of work, we’re talking about programmers, or other technical professions. In general, these people are highly trained, and very well-compensated. In other words, you’re paying them a shit-ton of money. Why would you not listen to them? You don’t always have to do everything they suggest. (In fact, they wouldn’t respect you if you did that.) But when you ignore them, you make them crazy. They’re not going to be content with just earning a bunch of money and not caring whether you ignore their highly trained advice. And if they were content with that, why would you want people like that working for you anyway?
Trust means you believe that people want to do their jobs. You don’t stand over them to make sure they’re doing it. You don’t micromanage. You don’t tell them they can’t work from home when they need to, or when they just feel like it. You don’t insitute silly policies to try to control them. You don’t ask them to justify every hour of their day. I left my last job because of lack of trust, and, when I leave my current job, it will be for the same reason. So if you’re trying to figure out how much trust is going to cost you, better factor in how much distrust is going to cost.
Freedom means giving people latitude to pursue their own ideas. How can you expect to have any innovation without allowing freedom? Google is probably the leader in this particular area, with their formalized “20% of your time on personal projects” policy, but very few companies have followed that lead. Trying to direct the every move of your employees is doomed to failure on so many fronts: it’s distrustful, as we already covered, and it takes up way too much of your time. Don’t you have better things to do? And, in the end, you close off the avenues of exploration that lead your company to new and exciting places ahead of your competition.
You want highly motivated employees. “High-performance people,” as they are referred to both by Netflix and Valve. In fact, both the documents we’ve been dissecting contain this exact phrase: “high-performance people are generally self-improving.”1 In other words, the best thing you can do to encourage these employees is just leave them the fuck alone. As Netflix points out (emphasis in the original):
Responsible people thrive on freedom, and are worthy of freedom.2
What would you rather have: people that need constant coddling, or people who will take initiative, innovate, and get things done? If you want the latter, you have to give to receive. And what you have to give is respect, trust, and freedom.
And beware of rules. Policies, and guidelines, and structure. It has a tendency to multiply uncontrollably; don’t let it get a foothold. We already talked about what what Valve thinks of corporate structure. Netflix is more blunt:
Process-focus drives more talent out3
All those little rules and policies are going to drive your top employees—the ones who think out of the box and aren’t willing to be constrained by your rules—absolutely batshit crazy. To people who think Netflix’s policy on vacation tracking (“there is no policy or tracking”) is insane, they respond:
There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one comes to work naked
Lesson: you don’t need policies for everything4
Think about that for a minute. I know, it sounds flip—it sounds like it’s supposed to be cute, and a little amusing, but not to be taken seriously. But actually think about it. Do you need to tell your employees not to come to work naked? No? Now go back and think about how many of the company policies you do have implicitly treat your employees like idiots.
In my experience, too many managers think their employees incapable of getting anything done on their own. Even if they don’t believe that consciously, their actions scream it. This why they come up with artificial deadlines, and guilt trips, and threats, and austerity policies. These things are designed to put pressure on employees in order to get them to complete their work. But these things are stupid: properly motivated employees don’t need pressure to do their work. They want to do the work. Now, perhaps you’re not properly motivating them (although that’s what the last 5 posts have been about, so you really have no excuse at this point). But that’s not their fault. It’s yours.
The only “pressure” I ever put on my employees was to foster some competition amongst them. And even then I was very careful. What you want is constructive competition, not destructive competition. What’s the difference? Simple: Destructive competition is working hard to look better than the next guy. Constructive competition is working hard to be better. Looking better is most easily achieved by making the other guy look worse. Being better requires self-improvement. Merit-based pay and open pay rates and anytime raises and self-forming teams foster constructive competition. Calibration and empty titles and infrequent compensation rewards and salary secrecy foster destructive competition.
At Barefoot, employees had a workplace that they valued. They would do anything to protect that. They understood the financial situation well enough to know how to protect it. They knew where they needed to save money, and they knew exactly how valuable each customer was. They fought to keep those customers: to keep them happy, to deliver top value, to go above and beyond and add personal touches. When there was no work, they didn’t get paid, so they did everything in their power to make sure the work kept coming in. I never had to stand up at a company meeting and remind everyone that it was their job to make the company successful; they knew it. It was their company, after all. There was no one “above” them whose job it was to take care of those things; it was their job. Each and every one of them. Every single one was a benefactor of the Grand Experiment, and they would do anything to keep it from failing.
I thought I was creating a utopia for workers. It turned out I was creating a productivity juggernaut.
Next week we’ll climb down off our high horse and look at whether there are any downsides to this philosophy.