Pioneers of workplace democracy

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.

valve officeThe 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?

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10 Comments on “Pioneers of workplace democracy”

  1. Miljenko May 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi,
    Thanks for great post.
    Very similar ideas you can find in extraordinary book REINVENTING ORGANIZATIONS by Frederic Laloux.
    Best
    Miljenko

  2. DevonChap May 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    Netflix might not be being so nice as you portray. As an internet company I expect there is a lot of long hours and unused holidays already. An unscrupulous boss can give someone 52 weeks worth of work rather than 45 weeks worth. My wife knows a law firm which like Netflix has not set holiday policy but the targets the staff have are so high they can’t take much time off.

    • Jeremy May 21, 2014 at 11:55 am #

      Netflix wouldn’t claim to be ‘being nice’. They have an unusual HR approach which is very performance driven, and they describe themselves as operating more like a sports team than a family. It is a long hours culture and quite intense, which is precisely why they don’t log holiday time – nor expenses, in fact.

      What I like about their approach is the idea of trust, freedom, and treating people like adults, but the intensity and commitment isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t want to work there myself.

      The Valve model, on the other hand, is much more ‘nice’. They make a point of valuing work-life balance, and they consider regular overtime to be a failure to plan properly. Again, that wouldn’t be for everyone, especially when you learn that they all go on holiday together with their families. But that’s why both companies put a strong emphasis on hiring the right people.

  3. Karin Jenkins May 21, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    The no set holidays no set hours thing isn’t new. My Dad got that sort of contract when he was first employed as a University lecturer in 1969 – the assumption being that they were interested in their subject and wanted to do the work. It doesn’t really work for a job dealing with the public though – it’s no good all your receptionists deciding they want to work in the morning and nobody being there in the afternoon and esp if there are unpopular shifts which have to be shared fairly.

    • Jeremy May 22, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      It’s been more common in universities I think, where academics having an open research brief and come and go as they please.

      I expect Netflix has receptionists too! They don’t count the amount of time you take, but you still have to notify management and make sure your work is covered.

  4. Traci Fenton May 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, thanks for your blog! Do you know the work of our company, WorldBlu? We are teaching companies all over the world how to build democratic, freedom-centered workplaces and have been at it for almost 20 years! You can learn more about us here — http://www.worldblu.com. Love what you are writing about and these are great models too! Thanks for spreading the word!

    Warmly,
    Traci Fenton
    Founder, WorldBlu

    • Jeremy May 21, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

      Thanks for dropping by – lots more great stories on your site. I will explore and share some of those too.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why can’t we all just share? | Make Wealth History - June 18, 2014

    […] resources, from tools to expertise to parking places to peer-to-peer lending. Cooperatives and employee democracy are growing in importance, bringing shared power and mutual aid to the areas of business and […]

  2. Pioneers of workplace democracy | Alienated World - August 21, 2014

    […] — source makewealthhistory.org […]

  3. Will capitalism bore itself to death? | Make Wealth History - October 19, 2016

    […] surely solving that problem may also open up possibilities for political reform?” Indeed, and workplace democracy, employee ownership, and shorter working hours all look like possible ways […]

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