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How One Company Revolutionized Their Workplace Culture

Corporate America has undergone a serious upheaval in the last two decades. Gone are the days of slogging away from 9 to 5 in a cubicle.
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Corporate America has undergone a serious upheaval in the last two decades. Gone are the days of slogging away from 9 to 5 in a cubicle. Nearly a third of employees now work remotely or telecommute, according to a recent Gallup poll. Smartphones are powering a new age of constant connectivity. In the workplace, gone are the expanses of gray cubicles that were famously maligned in the 90's comedy Office Space (and those dreaded TPS reports!). Today's offices are "workplace communities" that more closely resemble futuristic creative lounges.

While the visual change in office appearance is evident, less noticeable is the shift in management style. It is typified by autonomy throughout the organization. Employees are empowered to meet objectives their way and rewarded when they excel. This model is most evident in startups and tech companies. Here, employers use this approach to maximize the ambition and creativity of their personnel, realizing that a rigid chain of command and too much managing can stymie those qualities.

It's not just tech giants like Google and Facebook that are adopting this management style. Companies in more traditional industries are now re-imagining their corporate structures to try to harness the full potential of their employees. Recently, I spoke with Benjamin Petter, President of Avara Construction, a commercial builder based in the Seattle area, to learn more about how his company has adopted this approach.

1. What is the difference between an empowered employee and a managed employee?

Our paradigm is defined by this principle: we empower our employees to empower themselves. It influences everything from the roles and responsibilities in a project to accountability during the process. On our team, an empowered teammate has a clear understanding of the scope, timing, and quality they are expected to deliver and they are given the freedom to do it in a way that they define.

Every teammate is personally responsible for ensuring their work is completed to the standards set by their 'client' (their direct report), and they will identify the necessary resources (and campaign for budgets, etc.) they need to achieve the end goal. To this end, we allow complete autonomy at every level and allow each to define and obtain their success based on their ability to perform. High performers will continue to ask for more work and have the potential to earn more as a direct result.

It's an environment that self-starters and entrepreneurs thrive in. We set the expectation and allow each teammate to work autonomously on their project, and follow up with regularly scheduled updates.

2. Do employees have to earn trust before being given autonomy or is it sink-or-swim from the start?

We provide independence immediately for all of our roles. The scope of each role is well defined and includes KPIs and other performance metrics to understand and report client expectations and performance. With this model, we know immediately whether a team member will need additional training (and where) and whether they're cut out for the performance expectations of our team. We always have a mutual understanding of the benchmark for success with every teammate.

3. Pragmatically, how does this culture play out in a construction business? What is the impact on the end product?

The biggest issues that cause projects to go over-budget and blow past deadlines are eliminated with this model. As you can imagine many jobs overlap, and one aspect of the project cannot move forward until another is done, or until another team member gives the green light to move forward. Many construction companies are plagued by complacency among their teams when people sit and wait for things to get done instead of becoming problem solvers and chipping in to help others. We have created a culture that empowers creativity, initiative and teamwork. Everyone's performance helps everyone else, and everyone succeeds when the team does well.

As a result, the end product is on time, on budget, and within (or exceeding) the quality standards set by the management structure (and based on the client's needs).

The overall impact is that our projects are completed more efficiently, and the star players are given the opportunity to shine and be handsomely rewarded for going above and beyond. We have a much leaner team and extremely high employee engagement as each is excited about the ability to be responsible for their destiny.

4. Do clients notice the difference or is the benefit strictly an internal one?

Our customers notice increased quality of workmanship, work being produced on-time, and budgets which do not change unless the project scope is changed.

Internally, we find a more engaged culture. Time is the great equalizer for all of us. The quicker we can communicate our needs and produce our work; the quicker we can get to the other things in life that matter. Since expectations are understood well in advance throughout the organization, teammates are responsible for getting things done and also find reward in their increased free time (and/or increased compensation). They own their time; they own their production; they own their life.

5. Construction is not typically known for its entrepreneurial culture; what other industries could benefit from this style?

I believe we'll continue to see this trend throughout all productive industries. We continue to see the expansion of flexible work schedules with greater emphasis on personal responsibility and actual job performance. It's a better way to get work done - it allows each of us to define and determine our personal path through evaluation of value contribution and performance.

Even in industries not traditionally known for an entrepreneurial view of getting the work done, at the end of the day the importance of what we all do comes down to tasks accomplished and happy clients. If we're able to do this more efficiently than the next guy, we should be rewarded with time or with economics.

Bottom line:

Petter's willingness to shake up stale workplace culture and drive innovation, empowerment and creativity is an important lesson for any business owner. It's also a critical reminder that as more Millennials enter the workplace, businesses must be prepared to recruit and retain top talent to maintain a competitive edge. Millennials crave autonomy. Empowering employees to empower themselves is a critical first start.

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