Considering how much of our lives we spend at our jobs, our work environment ought to nurture us and provide us with the opportunity to grow and learn and live our dreams. Is this ideal scenario really possible?
It is, if you ask Richard Sheridan, cofounder and CEO of Menlo Innovations and the author of Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love.
Menlo isn’t just another a software design and development firm: the company’s mission is nothing less than to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.
“We do that by focusing on what we call the business value of joy,” Richard said. “We want to delight the people we serve, the people who are one day going to touch the work that happens here at Menlo. And we don’t believe for a second you can produce joy in the world unless you have joy inside the company as well.”
When he was ten years old, Richard told me, he put together a shelving unit for his mother and set it up just the way she wanted it. “She was so delighted it brought tears to her eyes,” he recalled. “And that sort of led me to this idea that engineering work, when done well, can delight people.”
Later, as a computer engineer, Richard found that many of the projects he worked on wound up frustrating their customers — or “users,” as they were commonly referred to. “We’d write Dummies books for these poor people, and it dawned on me — what other industry can get away with calling the people they serve stupid?
“I knew that the opposite could be true: that you could design things that were a delight to use because they took into account, with empathy and compassion, the people who would one day use them.”
It become “a maniacal obsession,” according to Richard.
Richard described for me the organizational culture of some of the technology companies he worked at in the past. “It swung back and forth between two different models,” he said. “One model was chaos. You know, firefighting all the time, phones ringing off the hook, problems going unsolved, never any time to make things work. Then the other world was one where a company tried to get on top of that and really batten down the hatches. It created this sort of soul-crushing bureaucracy. You went from the land of never getting anything done to the land of never getting anything started.”
It reached the point where Richard thought about getting out of the tech industry entirely.
“I knew there was this burning desire in me to do a better job than what we were doing as an industry,” he said. “Quite frankly, technology is easy compared with organizing human beings into effective teams.”
Not that the tech industry has a monopoly on either chaos or bureaucracy. Growing up in Michigan, Richard saw the same sort of dysfunction in the automotive industry. “You can find it all over the world,” he said. “And you can also find counter-examples. Radicals who decided: you know what? I’m getting off that merry-go-round and I’m going to do things differently.”
A happy employee is a productive employee
One of the reasons Menlo has won the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence for eight straight years, Richard believes, is because of the company’s emphasis on work-life balance. “We work 40-hour weeks,” he told me. “We never work weekends. We never deny or delay vacation requests. We let new moms and dads bring their babies in to work.
“Our fundamental belief is that tired people make bad software. So we didn’t want to have tired people working for us,” he added. “When you leave the office, you are essentially cut off from Menlo electronically.”
Richard feels strongly that rejecting the typical industry practice of working around the clock not only makes Menlo a pleasant place to work, but it also makes sense from a business standpoint. “If we have energized human beings working for us, at a sustainable pace over a long period of time, we can outperform our competition. And we regularly do.”
Another way Menlo distinguished itself was by doing away with the HR department. “When you start creating departments that worry about very specific things, then no one else worries about them, because that group is going to take care of that stuff,” he explained. “When it comes to the people who work for you, that has to be the focus of the entire team. There’s no way you can outsource that part of your company.”
How Menlo hires talent
Richard believes the traditional practice of reviewing resumes and interviewing prospective hires isn’t an effective way to find the right people. “What we look for first and foremost, when people are joining Menlo, is do you have good kindergarten skills?” he said. “Do you play well with others? Do you share?
“We make it an audition. People literally practice in front of us being good kindergarteners with another candidate. We pair them off with a person they’ve never met and we give them explicit instructions: your job is to make the person sitting next to you look good and give them the best possible chance of getting a second interview.
“Of course, the person might be saying, ‘Well, it’s me who wants a second interview.’ It’s a little bit unnerving, as you might imagine.”
Using this process, not only can Menlo evaluate whether a candidate is a good fit for the company, but the applicant can also see if they want to work there or not.
Read more about Menlo’s unconventional hiring methods here.
Two heads are better than one
The teamwork doesn’t stop when the interview process is over. Menlo also has a peer-led feedback system. Software developers work in pairs — two people at one computer, all day long — that are switched every five days. “Who better to evaluate whether you’re working out well than the people who are sitting next to you for up to 40 hours in a work week?” Richard asked.
The practice of pair programming is something Richard first read about in a book called Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck. “He challenged the thinking of our entire industry,” Richard said. “He asked, ‘Look back in your career: when did you produce your best work as a programmer? My experience is that it was when I was working closely with another human being.’ Two heads are always better when solving problems in a quality fashion than one person working alone.”
CEO as chief storyteller
Menlo regularly conducts tours for people from all over the world. In the early days, Richard led many of those tours, and he found that the best way to convey why the company does things the way it does was by telling stories of his own personal history — the painful hours he spent at soul-draining jobs — as well as stories of the company since its inception.
When the tours grew larger, Richard began conducting them with a partner. “What I found was they telling the same stories I’d been telling all those years, but telling them through their own lens,” he said. “What I found was that their stories were more interesting because they made them personal.
“They also told stories I hadn’t heard before, that stories about Menlo that I hadn’t directly experienced because maybe I wasn’t there that day or I wasn’t in that part of the room when the story was unfolding. It began to dawn on me. Our stories are as essential to human history as anything, and I realized this is true of companies as well.”
Richard realized that the way companies propel their culture forward is through storytelling. “When storytelling is absent, a strong culture is typically absent as well.”
Predictions about the future of work
With the development of power computing, constant connectedness, and unlimited storage, Richard believes we’re now entering the “age of imagination,” where we’re no longer constrained by physical limitations. “It is simply our imagination that is constraining us, and therefore we need to stay in that most human part of our brain — the prefrontal cortex — in order to take advantage of the age we’re in.”
“The prefrontal cortex often gets shut down when we manage people with pure certainty. One of my roles as a leader is to create a feeling of safety so people can begin to trust one another. If they trust one another, they can begin to collaborate.”
“I think we’re also entering an age where individual heroes can no longer be the answer,” he said. “This is no longer your project. It’s our project working together.”
I noted that Menlo seems to pride itself on the fact that there are no managers — everyone’s a leader.
Richard agreed. “If you look at how companies have traditionally been organized, managers always have attempted to control,” he said. “Control feels easier. I tell you to do something, you go do it. But if that’s our only relationship, you stop working every time I stop telling. Whereas if I can encourage individuals to be leaders, suddenly I’m no longer the bottleneck. I’m not the one everyone is coming to saying, ‘Well, you didn’t tell us what to do next, so we’re not sure what to do.’
“Now they simply begin leading.”