6 people who shook up the workplace in 2015
Engagement 7 minute read

6 people who shook up the workplace in 2015

Rise | March 2, 2016

2015 was the year of Amazon employees speaking out, holacracy, and a $70,000 minimum wage. How do you measure a year? When your subject is shake-ups, these three stories seem like a pretty good place to start.

Some days, it seems like the workplace is changing way too slowly. Other times, it’s hard to keep up. Last year it was the latter, which is why we thought the top people and culture stories of 2015 would be worth a revisit.

The following six people shook up the workplace—we know we’re still feeling the aftershocks.

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld

They wrote the article that unveiled the way in which Amazon treats its employees and how several employees perceive it in a negative light.

“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” interrupted a discussion often dominated by feel-good tales of tech company culture, where ball pits, nap rooms, and ping-pong tourneys are a recurring motif. In contrast, journalists Kantor and Streitfeld describe a punishing corporate culture where competition—and something close to bullying—thrives. “At Amazon,” the pair write, “workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late…and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.”

Amazon took umbrage, with company spokesman Jay Carney taking to Medium to refute the claims twice. But despite Carney’s indignation, this article doesn’t read as a total condemnation of Amazon’s culture. The piece, while blistering at points, also suggests that this highly demanding atmosphere is appreciated by select employees: “some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits.”

At Rise, we talk about work-life balance a lot. We insist that company-wide compassion and collaboration are critical to creating engaged teams. And yes, most of the Amazonians quoted in this article reinforced that view. But there was also a small sample of employees who said otherwise.

When people professionals speak about culture-building, the same examples come up again and again: Zappos. Google. Netflix. We’re guilty of it, too. But it’s important to remember those places aren’t for everyone. We’re not about to proclaim Amazon a paragon of positive company culture—that’s not our point. But watching the conversation that came up in response to this article reminded us that workplace culture can’t be uniform across the board. We hold up certain companies as ideals, but they’re not the ideal for every industry, business, or individual.

Competition does drive some people more than collaboration might. Introverts may feel more at home in a traditional, versus open-concept, office. What works for the Netflix team might not work for yours…and instead of trying to replicate something that already exists, people and culture professionals need to build an environment and atmosphere that supports their current team members, as well as the type of candidates they hope to attract.

Dan Price

Price made headlines in 2015 when he promised to raise the minimum salary at Gravity Payments to $70,000 annually. Later, it was his brother’s lawsuit and ex-wife’s abuse allegations that landed him in the news, complicating the initial story of an altruistic employee advocate.

But back in April, when Gravity’s $70,000 salary was announced, compensation—and what counts as a living wage—was the hot topic. You likely had to field some uncomfortable questions from team members, and we’re sorry for that—but mostly we’re glad because we believe it’s past time that compensation strategies became more transparent.

We often default to discussing compensation behind closed doors. Leaders fail to communicate how raises are decided or starting salaries determined because it seems like a risky thing to disclose. But in reality, that kind of secrecy can make team members feel like they’re being taken advantage of, or that their contributions aren’t valued—even when that’s not the case.

2015 saw an important discussion about compensation, and the business strategies around it, open up. You don’t have to design a totally new pay structure at your company, but you should let team members in on how and why it exists in its current form. Talk about your criteria for deciding who gets a raise. Explain the formula that goes into determining how geography affects income. What about bonuses? Why are only certain departments eligible for them?

Team members want to know and understand, and while they might not love the answers, they will appreciate being looped in.

Leo Widrich, Joel Gascoigne, and Tony Hsieh

Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne, co-founders of Buffer, have long taken conversations like this to the next level, transparency-wise. In 2013, the social tech company released the salaries of every team member to the world at large—and, in response, found themselves flooded with applications from exceptional candidates. “We’ve never been able to find great people this quickly in the past,” Gascoigne says.

In 2015, the pair continued to shake things up—this time analyzing why another one of their radical policies didn’t work as planned. Months earlier, Widrich had excitedly declared Buffer’s intention to go manager-free. But in August 2015, the company took a hard pivot: “Hierarchy has once again become a central part of how we work again at Buffer,” Widrich explains, noting that their flat structure had created an overwhelming—and therefore counterproductive—amount of freedom.

But Tony Hsieh? He wants to try the manager-free approach for himself, using the ‘holacracy’ model invented by Brian J. Robertson. Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO (or former CEO—holacracy doesn’t include job titles), made waves on April 30, 2015, when his long-term restructuring plan took full effect: there would be no more managers at this company—not ever. Instead, holacracy features ‘circles’ (read: departments) that oversee ‘sub-circles.’ Holacracy isn’t flat or hierarchy-less, but it does remove autocratic power from individuals. As such, it looks radically different when compared to your average org chart.

Not everyone’s happy with it: 14 percent of Zapponians opted to take a special severance package and leave the company. Current team members, like Rachel Murch, have criticised the restructuring publicly. (Compare this to Amazon, whose employees were prohibited from talking to Kantor and Streitfeld.) Unlike Widrich and Gascoigne, however, Hsieh remains committed to his manager-free vision and the idea of going ‘teal’—the pinnacle all holacratic organizations hope to reach.

Whether their experiments work or not, we tip our hats to this trio of renegades. Widrich, Gascoigne, and Hsieh’s willingness to try on unorthodox organizational structures proves that challenging the status quo is possible…and not as frightening as many might believe. As Buffer’s example makes clear, you can always return to what worked before—but with more confidence. After all, it’s no longer just the default, but rather a conscious choice.

Company culture, compensation, and organizational structure can be heavy subjects. In 2015, these six people disrupted those comfortable topics to make us reconsider. And sure, we didn’t always arrive at the same conclusion (Rise won’t be going ‘teal’ anytime soon). But often, it’s the principles we hold dear that most need revisiting. That’s how you avoid stagnation. That’s how you power a revolution when it comes to the world of work.

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