In his best-selling book Maverick!, Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler describes how he transformed his father's company, Semco, into a non-traditional workplace. In this sequel to that book, he traces Semco's foray into high-technology and how the company grew to become an organization with multiple businesses, 3,000 employees, and $160 million in revenue. This time, however, he focuses on how managers can help employees achieve a healthy work/life balance in order to create a sustainable company.
As Semler warns readers at the outset, his book questions everything we know about how to run a company. He turns most of our cherished notions about an effective workplace upside down, suggesting outrageous alternatives, and then tells us how these ideas have actually worked at Semco. His accounts will make even the most progressive managers shake their heads in disbelief.
Semler's main argument centers on the idea that our traditional weekend disappeared a long time ago. In times past, weekends allowed us time to be idle, think, and find a work/life balance. Now, in the age of laptops and mobile phones, we spend our weekends either working or thinking about work. We fill even our leisure time with things we must do, adhering to rigid schedules and leaving no time to relax and do nothing. This has created great stress for all of us.
As an alternative, Semler proposes a "seven-day weekend" ? a completely flexible schedule that can reduce stress and restore balance to our lives by allowing us to decide each day how to divide our time between our jobs and personal lives. We should learn how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon or go to a park and feed ducks with our children. By having the flexibility to work and play when we want, he argues, we can extend our "reservoir of talent" and live a richer, more contented life. This is critical for us as individuals. As Semler reminds us, life expectancy is increasing and may soon exceed 100 years; many of us will continue to work well past the traditional retirement age. Success and money are only distant relatives, he reminds us.
Helping employees achieve a healthy work/life balance is also critical for businesses. Employees with balanced lives are happier and more productive. Our current workplaces, Semler contends, operate like militaristic boarding schools, treating employees like adolescents.
The military structure at traditional companies consolidates power in a few hands, creates a chain of command that eliminates uncertainty, and makes the rules of behaviour clear to all. But it also stifles freedom and creativity.
If democratic principles are good for other parts of our society, Semler argues, shouldn't they be good for the workplace? Why shouldn't we treat employees like adults and trust them to do the right thing? And this is what he did as head of Semco.
Transforming a workplace into a democracy
Semler describes several steps he took to usher in democracy at his workplace:
- Give up control (e.g., no organization charts, dress code, fixed offices or policies; complete flex-time for all workers, including those on assembly lines).
- Share information (e.g., make all salaries public and invite everyone to attend board meetings; Semler even shares profit calculations with customers).
- Encourage self-management (i.e., force people to think independently, question everything, and solve their own problems; manage by doing nothing yourself when problems arise).
- Discourage uniformity (e.g., rotate jobs, allow extreme flexibility in work and pay).
Semler describes numerous incidents that illustrate how these principles led to Semco's success. For example, at one point he discovered that a particular division was spending too much money on supplies. Rather than limiting supplies, managers let the employees deal with the problem themselves. They set up a competition: The group that used the most supplies had to buy coffee for everybody else. Within a short time, the group that lost came up with a plan to limit its use of supplies. Other groups adopted the same plan, and the company reduced supply consumption by 21 percent overall.
The most critical incident happened when Brazil suffered a recession in the early 1990s. Workers met to plan Semco's future. They tried everything to avert layoffs and closures: selling spare parts on the road; cancelling maintenance, security, and cleaning contracts, and doing all the work themselves; assigning everyone a shift to drive a company truck or work in the company kitchen.
Because Semco managers had been sharing information with employees all along (every check required a management and union signature), everybody already knew the numbers. And the employees reached a consensus: They voted to shut down a factory and let 200 people go, with generous severance packages. Although Semler opposed this move, worrying about the emotional shock of padlocking a factory, and believing that if the company could hang on for a few more months, things might improve. But he was overruled, so he complied with the workers' vote.
In some instances, of course, democratic decision making can lead to problems. ERM, an important client, became upset when Semco missed a project deadline. A junior engineer had sent samples to a lab that was not certified, and the lab had made a classification mistake that resulted in a delay. Semco's UK partners demanded that heads roll and controls be put in place to prevent a recurrence. But Semler decided that the best approach was to do nothing, claiming that the situation would remedy itself. After much persuasion, Semco managers convinced their partners and the client that people learn from mistakes; employees would exert enough peer pressure to ensure that the same mistake would not recur. Better for Semco to screw up once or twice a year, Semler reasoned, than curb the energy, creativity, and drive that freedom inspires.
A vision for society
This is one of the most original and thought-provoking books I have ever read. Although the language is accessible and the colorful stories about Semco make for easy reading, it took me a long time to read the book, as I was constantly stopping to ponder another of Semler's "crazy" concepts. Also, as Semler is a big believer in serendipity, he disdains structure and advocates a rambling route through life. This book reflects that belief: Ideas, stories, and observations are strewn through the book seemingly at random.
Although for some it may provoke frustration, I recommend this book to both managers and non-managers alike. As I see it, the challenge for all of us is how to apply Semler's ideas and beliefs in our present settings. Not all of us are lucky enough to inherit a company, and sharing salary information in our current jobs would probably get us fired. However, I will continue to look for ways to follow some of Semler's suggestions and bring more freedom to my workplace. I believe that doing so will make me and my co-workers happier and more productive.
In addition, like Semler, I think this freedom can make a difference in our society. Encouraging people to take risks and be comfortable with change will transform not only the way we work, but also the way we live. As Semler argues, it can take us from the knowledge revolution to the wisdom revolution.