Walking the talk with Spider Agile

Shawnee Love   •  
July 26, 2010

Ask Valerie Dougans of Spider Agile Technology what their company culture is like and she describes a world far far away  from traditional HR. She described a company that has:

  • A flat management structure,
  • No offices,
  • No job titles,
  • Fluid job descriptions,
  • All pitching in when something needs doing, and
  • No layoffs.

She had me squirming a bit at no job titles and fluid job descriptions but “no layoffs” sold me. Picture a world where everyone from the people who do the planning and strategizing to those involved in the tactical and day to day sit in a central area so you can hear what is going on and the obstacles and solutions your colleagues find. That set up would put a wrecking ball through the typical departmental silos many organizations struggle with.

She sold me on the fact that in their organization job titles and job descriptions aren’t that important because everyone pitches in and helps. They don’t have a receptionist, so when the phone rings, someone answers and instead of their job title, they will tell you their name. Imagine!

The most impressive factor to me is the philosophy of no layoffs. I mean Spider moved in to its beautiful, completely redone building in 2008 just as the markets crashed and their sales plummeted. Their fearless leader, Mogens Smed, said to everyone that he won’t lay them off because it isn’t the employees’ fault that business is slow. What he also said is that while he won’t lay anyone off, he needs them to show him they are hard workers and that they “get” what he’s trying to do.

So in a time when many businesses were shedding jobs like a dog sheds in springtime, Mogens said stick with me, I’ll stick with you. Instead (with the exception of sales who kept working at their normal jobs) he put the rest of his staff to work doing other stuff when they weren’t busy with their own jobs. In order to keep people busy he had them do some of the normal “keep busy” stuff like count inventory, clean, paint, and do maintenance. He also paid them to get fit (as in healthy and active) by letting them get outside and walk, jog, or run up the hill behind their facility. My personal favourite is that he encouraged his employees to organize volunteer opportunities. He actually paid them their regular rates to go out and volunteer in the community! This practice is the ultimate in wins for me because the employees were “jazzed” when they came back from a volunteer activity, the community group the employees helped were “thrilled” and Spider got to keep committed, loyal, energized employees who were proud to work there. Win-Win-Win!

Cynics out there might question the cost of keeping their employees in such a serious downturn but Spider’s answer is to point out that when the economy started coming back and they suddenly had a record breaking month of sales on their plate, there was no downtime to recruit and train new employees. Spider was able to meet their manufacturing targets and hit their shipping dates.  How many of you out there who laid your staff off were able to:

  1. Have record breaking sales months so soon after the downturn, and
  2. Actually deliver all the product?

According to Spider, their policy of no layoffs is the reason for that achievement. I would add that their practice of focusing on the long term rather than having short-term-bottom-line-myopia is admirable and one that many other companies could benefit from.

I asked Valerie to tell me why Spider encouraged this culture and her answer was because:

  • It is easy
  • It is the right thing to do
  • It is sustainable
  • We want to set an example
  • We are a green solution for clients and we are green to the core.

Whether it’s catered lunches for $2/day (reduces trips to restaurants and stores and ensures a healthy meal), an employee veggie garden, composting, solar panels on the roof for heating, an employee gym, car pool incentives, motion sensor lights, xeriscape landscape, pine beetle arbour, or the Kingfisher salmon babies which they share the responsibility of feeding and raising and release each year as a team, this company is truly the change they wish to see in the world. And before you ask, of course they use their own green modular power solution as well as their parent company D.I.R.T.T’s modular walls and ceilings.

Just prior to leaving Spider, I asked Valerie if she has any advice for people who read this column and her answer was so perfect for a column about business success through people that I will leave you with it:

Treat your employees well. Employees make your business great.