Photo via Bigstock

As a tech community, most of us were impacted by the “Great Recession.” As the business climate improves, it’s also important to take stock of your employees – their motivation, productivity, and collaboration – to ensure you take full advantage of the upswing. During the recession, people were afraid of what tomorrow might bring, both personally and professionally.

After stepping into the CEO role at Verdiem a year ago, I realized we needed to reinvigorate our team and lead them into a hopeful, optimistic future. We explored ways to boost morale and ultimately felt that our company culture was the cornerstone to revitalizing confidence and optimism in our team. I instigated some progressive shifts in our company culture to excite and grow passion in our employees, to improve our team’s effectiveness and drive better results.

Here are some of the things that worked for us as we made the transition.

Hit the reset button

Our company needed a cathartic reset – a time when employees could openly and honestly share their feelings about what was or wasn’t working, and to discuss what kind of company we wanted. Ultimately, we needed to escape our current circumstances and leave the old Verdiem behind.

John Scumniotales

We decided we would escape on a boat — well, at least a metaphorical boat. The team had to decide what was going on the boat (“things we wanted to keep”) and what was going to be left on the dock (“things we needed to purge”).

We made it clear that we wanted everyone to be “on board” and committed to bringing this new culture to life. We let our employees know that if they disagreed with the changes or didn’t feel like they were the best fit for the evolving culture, it was OK to leave.

Companies change and people change. When the value systems no longer align, it is time to disembark. We did, in fact, have a few employees decide to part ways with us, but because we allowed everyone to be open about their commitment level, there were no hard feelings.

Be agile

We also dialed up our agility. Our product development team had used agile development methods for some time, and we wanted our business to continue to reap the benefits of agility.

We improved communication and collaboration not only across the company, but also with our partners and customers. We became more courageous as a company delivering a continuous stream of innovative product releases to market. And, we achieved this with a high degree of transparency and accountability.

Every morning, we have several different team “stand-ups” to make sure we’re staying focused and collaborating. Every two weeks, we hold all-company meetings to review the latest new product capabilities, and every quarter, we hold all-hands meetings to discuss business results.

Think spatially

To further increase collaboration and morale, the physical office space itself needed to reflect the same air of openness. We remodeled our workspace to create an open environment with no offices. The leadership team holds its daily stand-up meeting in an area where employees can hear what is being discussed and chime in.

Another large dedicated area was designed for the development team’s daily stand-ups and bi-weekly sprint reviews with the entire company. People can more easily bounce ideas off one another, or raise questions or concerns if a project isn’t going the way we expected it to.

Rethink old habits

John Scumniotales at a "retroview"

As we defined our company’s values via these new changes to our culture, it was clear the traditional performance review process needed to be tossed overboard. This once-per-year ritual bases an employee’s worth on goals that don’t necessarily correlate with how the company’s needs have shifted throughout the year, and traditional reviews tend to pit employees against one another for higher ratings and associated rewards.

We expect goals to be fluid in a fast-paced environment and feedback to be on-going.

So, we created an entirely new process for evaluating employees called “retroviews,” which focuses on aligning each employee’s values and associated behaviors with those of Verdiem instead of judging them based on a list of accomplishments.

In their retroviews, employees also provide feedback to management on “what went well;” “what didn’t go well;” and “what should we do differently.” The process includes manager-employee discussions about value alignment and culminates in an all-hands retrospective where employees share their views and discuss solutions in an open and honest environment.

Eliminate vacation

One of the ways we increased trust with our employees was by eliminating a formal vacation policy. We recommend our employees take about three weeks of vacation per year, but we don’t mandate that guideline.

We encourage employees to work directly with their manager on vacation time, and we believe that our employees should be able to take the time they need. Because we don’t track vacation or sick leave, employees take more responsibility for their own schedules and work-life balance, and reciprocate by respecting the company.

Start small

Not all the changes we made were dramatic and far-reaching. For instance, we introduced “beer thirty” on Fridays as a way for the team to bond and bring an air of casualty to the office. Even small changes, like this weekly team happy hour, can greatly improve employee morale and cohesiveness, which results in employees who are more passionate about their work.

The bottom line is that in order for employees to trust their employer, the employer must first put trust in them. Today’s workers are more efficient than ever, and they are demanding more respect, empowerment and flexibility than ever before.

In order to retain talent, boost morale and inspire a workforce that will be passionate about providing high-quality products to customers, companies need to take a look at the status quo and identify ways to disrupt it.

John Scumniotales is the CEO of Verdiem, a Seattle software company. Teamwork photo via Bigstock.

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  • K3

    This sounds so much like the culture of the startup I worked at 6 years ago, I did a double take to make sure this post wasn’t a blast from the past. These ideas were cutting edge more than half a decade ago and they’ve logged enough mileage that the new car smell is well worn off of them.

    Here’s how the same management mandates played out at that company (which ultimately went out of business): the lifeboat culture gave rise to intense groupthink; the open office plan drove people crazy and made them steal “breaks” at coffee shops to get actual work done; and the informal vacation policy translated into line managers placing intense pressure on employees to take no time off at all. Oh, we had Friday wine-thirty too: that was occasionally fun but the weekly requirement to stay and socialize Fridays after work grew quite stale.

    • John Scumniotales

      @K3 – Sorry to hear about your failed startup
      experience.  Actually, many of the ideas
      and changes we’ve made at Verdiem go back well over 20 years or more.  We needed to reenergize a stalled company
      coming out of a stalled economy.  And we
      recognized that the changes weren’t going to come from “management
      mandates”.  They were going to come from
      the people at Verdiem that have slugged it out on the front lines for
      years.  What we’ve tried to do is create
      an environment that fosters innovation and teamwork and gets management out of
      the way.  I got a chuckle from your
      “coffee shop” comment as we view many of the great cafes in our downtown
      Seattle neighborhood as an extension of our office!  I do agree that in the end if you don’t deliver
      real business results, these kinds of changes are just window dressing.  Early indicators are that the changes we’ve
      made are working as we are well on our way to significant growth in 2012.  The venerable John Doerr sums it up well – “Ideas
      are easy, execution is everything, and in anything worth doing, it takes a team
      to win”

  • Jerold Mitchell

    The idea of setting a clear course for your boat and what will or will not be on board is great. There should be no confusion in that regard. Open workspace works only if it is truly functional. We make sure our sales staff isn’t right next to operations, they don’t like the noise of our outbound calls.

    Tracked PTO may be a better way to go. You want people to not have the guilt of “calling in sick” to get time off, however you do need to keep track of usage. Since vacation is an earned benefit there is a financial liability to pay unused time based on your policy once people leave.

    You are on the right track and I am sure your firm will be fine if the plan is executed properly.

  • Robert

    I’m going on my fifth year working at Verdiem.

    been in the Tech industry for 12 years and find our environment highly
    enjoyable. What John describes isn’t just policy but a deep rooted cultural
    change that everyone adopted. It has also played a huge part in how we hire. I
    know that other employees enjoyed the cultural shift. Our new hires over the
    last year seem to enjoy the environment as well.

    K3 –
    I don’t know the situation you where in, but it sounds like the policy changes
    where made but the cultural adoption wasn’t there (line managers). We had an opposite
    result with “Group think”. This was an issue before the changes. It was
    eliminated because the “group” was expanded to the whole company, partners and
    customers. We had a larger scope of input and a lot of old myths and bias where
    broken down. There is no requirement for the beer Fridays. I don’t drink beer
    and only attended 2-3 of them in the last year.  Other employees seem to really enjoy it.

    I’m known as the load talker and on the phone constantly…they put me in the
    corner of the office so I have less disruption to others. (Not a bad spot, as I
    overlook Elliot bay with huge windows in front of me) Employees also use
    headphones and offices when the open environment isn’t working.

    I think the biggest affect of the changes was the increased
    collaboration between team.     


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