It seems like a growing trend in forward-thinking corporations involves employee empowerment, and a real team mentality. The two recent examples that got me thinking about this are the unusual org structure at Valve, and the fact that Whole Foods keeps their employee salaries open for scrutiny.

This week Kotaku released the Valve employee handbook (verified authentic by Valve). Evidently this happened a few months prior already, but this was the first I heard of it, and my first peek at what it’d be like to work at Valve. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone reading this blog, but I would LOVE to work on Steam. Partly because  online marketing and video games are in my blood, but mostly because I am head over heels in love with Steam. What a fantastic opportunity, to check out their actual employee handbook!


It’s as intimidating as it is dreamy. The fact that they let people move their desks anywhere they want is progressive, but I know of a few companies that do that, so that part’s not really earth-shattering. It’s the fact that you don’t have a boss or a job title that is the more mind-blowing. I know this, too, isn’t completely unique, but it’s still pretty darned rare. You work on the projects that YOU want to work on, the ones that you feel passionate about.

“Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions (more on that later). Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way.”

Valve strikes me as an organism comprised of individual parts that all work together to make the whole function. It also reminds me strongly of Banished, the medieval city-builder where everyone contributes, or the town will perish. It must be hard as hell to hire for this kind of thing, but if you find the right people, it allows for some pretty amazing dynamics. People are vested in the company succeeding, and they feel they are a significant, respected part of that. I think it’d give most traditional companies cold-sweat nightmares.

You know what would give traditional companies even worse cold-sweat nightmares? Salary transparency. Like I just found out Whole Foods does. As a Whole Foods employee, you can look up anyone’s salary. Even the CEO’s. And they release reports that show how each and every store is doing revenue-wise, too. This is empowerment by data. They say it is to encourage competition, and methinks it would. If you can accomplish more than that other guy, you can make the case for a larger salary. If your store accomplishes more than the store in the next county over, same thing.

Mackey and others at Whole Foods believe that a culture of shared information  helps create a sense of a “shared fate” among employees. “If you’re trying to  create a high-trust organization, an organization where people are all-for-one  and one-for-all, you can’t have secrets.”

See the common thread, here? These two cases illustrate a new way of being a company. For a long time there, most of my life, we’ve been in a mentality that things have changed from when our parents (the baby boomers) would spend 20 years at one company, and retire with a generous pension. I’ve lived in a generation where you were warned not to show any serious loyalty to your employer because they’d certainly turn around and fire you if it suited them. But what Valve and Whole Foods are doing seems more in the spirit of making a place where people feel like they are part of something, where loyalty is earned. It’s competitive, and performance-based, but also performance is recognized. That matters.

So after reading the handbook, will I still dream of working at Valve? Yes.

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