The Real Reward of Corporate Freedom

August 15, 2012

This week I returned from a week off, and although I did respond to emails, updated a presentation, and participated on one conference call during that week off, I did manage to get some much-needed down time on my staycation.

Even though I only finished some of the home projects that I had in mind for myself, I had a good week. I managed to catch some of the Olympics on TV, I spent time reading, and – how could I forget – we added a second dog to the family so that our recently-acquired dog Sammy would have a playmate.

These days, we have a Paid Time Off (PTO) policy at my company, but it wasn’t like that when I first joined. It was a small, focused company that didn’t have any HR to speak of. We didn’t have a set vacation policy. People took whatever time off they felt they required. And depending upon your stage in life and/or whatever may be going on in your personal life, some people needed more time than others. And that was OK.

We also didn’t have formal performance appraisals. I was told when I was hired that “people find their niche” and that those who weren’t finding ways to contribute were encouraged to look elsewhere for employment. There was a lot of peer-pressure to perform.

It was much like Netflix’s Freedom and Responsibility Culture described in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article. In it, Reed Hastings describes how Netflix wants people who are self-motivating and self-disciplined, the reward being a great deal of latitude – freedom – to operate.

Hastings observes that tracking vacation time is an industrial era habit, and he points out that he does some of his best creative thinking on vacation. I agree, separating from the day-to-day noise helps immensely in this respect, and most knowledge workers don’t “turn off” from their day just because they are out of the office or on vacation, either.

Looking back on my early days with my present company, we never really had any issues because we didn’t have a vacation policy. People were committed and engaged and we used our freedom like you would expect responsible adults would. Some keys that made this work were that we looked to hire people who didn’t need rulebooks and who didn’t wait for tasks to be assigned to them. We hired people capable of noticing a problem or market opportunity and taking the ball and running with it.

Other factors that are equally important is that had a solid vision for the company and what it was trying to do in the marketplace – and how we planned to do it. People didn’t “walk off the reservation” with ideas and pursuits that weren’t in line with our vision or the market we were serving. We were very connected with our customers and their needs. Everything that we did was around delighting the customer – although we were building out software at a feverish pace in those days and our quality was lacking in some cases. (Agile development and lean thinking certainly help to curb this problem.)

So, while we had freedom, but we also had the responsibility that came with it; and ultimately, freedom wasn’t the reward. It was a benefit. The real reward was that it never felt like work.