How freedom breeds engagement

Published 2014-06-26 by Jochen Lillich

On Tuesday night, I had the opportunity to give a talk at the “Entrepreneurs Anonymous Dublin” meetup about my professional journey from my first VIC-20 home computer to my current business with hundreds of Linux boxes. I also explained our management philosophy and how we foster trust and motivation by giving our employees as much freedom as possible.

I took the DART train back to Bray with meeting host John Muldoon and he expressed his happiness to hear about a company that successfully implemented innovative approaches like ROWE and unlimited time off. He head read about such methods but in many discussions got the feedback that they could not work in practice. I beg to differ.

While we’re certainly a small company that is agile enough to experiment with novel HR methods, our approach actually is based on solid scientific findings. It’s a proven fact that creating a work environment of trust and freedom leads to better business.

There’s a great summary of current study results in the New York Times opinion piece “ Why You Hate Work”. The company of author Tony Schwartz conducted a study with more than 20,000 employees and the result came back clear without ambiguity:

“Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.”

So, are we some sort of business hippies when we aim at more satisfied employees? No, we are effective entrepreneurs:

“In a 2012 meta-analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, Gallup found that companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22 percent higher profitability, 10 percent higher customer ratings, 28 percent less theft and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.”

It makes at lot of business sense for us to ask “What would make our employees feel more valued, more productive and more inspired?” For example, our policy to not track work time lets people take breaks without guilt and recharge their creativity batteries.

“Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.”

By treating our employees as the adults they are, we send a clear signal that we value not only their skills but their whole personality. This strengthens their identification with the company and its goals:

“Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.”

Our Results-Only Work Environment lets our team members focus on getting the important things done. Isn’t that one of the most essential things in a business? And as long as, when it comes to delivering results, the “what” and the “when” are okay, we simply don’t need to talk about the “how”.

“Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged.”

Another common HR topic is retention. When people actually turn out to be the great contributors we saw in them when we hired them, it’s obvious that we’d like to keep them for as long as possible. Well, that’s not that hard to achieve:

“Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey.”

We really don’t worry about team members abusing their freedom, for example their unlimited time off. Worrying would actually hurt our chances of building a highly productive team:

“Partly, the challenge for employers is trust. For example, our study found that employees have a deep desire for flexibility about where and when they work — and far higher engagement when they have more choice. But many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.”

Trust is a business investment where the gains are much greater than the risks. For us, granting our employees as much freedom as possible is an obvious choice.