Why We Have To Tell Our People To Stop Working
Wildling was founded in 2015. The company develops sustainable minimal shoes produced under fair conditions, and sells them directly to end customers as a vertical brand. Wildling is not only re-imagining shoes, conventional supply chains, and distribution channels, the company is also pursuing new approaches to corporate culture and team leadership. The staff – now numbering 140 employees – works remotely, organized as a decentralized team.
The beginning is history
When we founded Wildling as a couple five years ago, our three children were still young – a rambunctious bunch with unique expectations. To be able to strike a balance between the countless hours that were invested in founding and building the company and our role as parents, the most logical course of action was to work from home. No annoying commute to the office, no stress if it takes a bit longer to say goodbye at kindergarten, being able to have lunch together, and also having a chance to catch up on some quick tasks in the evening when necessary. A flexible setup that gave us a great deal of personal freedom despite the heavy workload.
When we were no longer able to keep up with the volume of work and needed to hire the first employees, we didn’t have an office. We figured, what would be more logical than to employ people to work from home like we do? The only thing they needed was a computer and internet access.
With a team of 30 people or fewer, that kind of on-demand cooperation worked quite well. But then the problems began. Many of our employees had never met in person, communication channels became unnecessarily complex, some people felt excluded because they didn’t receive information that others did, and groups that didn’t have a lot of understanding for each other began to form. Wildling was at risk of becoming a team that, despite pursuing the same goal, didn’t unite their efforts and pull together, one that interpreted “remote” to mean “every man for himself” and where frustration outweighed the sense of freedom. What we were lacking was a framework and a foundation that would allow both autonomy and the collective to exist in parallel.
One purpose – one team
So here’s what we did: The most important thing was to introduce regular group meetings. We began by using these meetings to define our vision. What is Wildling’s purpose, its raison d’être? What do we want to achieve with Wildling? What is it that drives us forward every day? Then came our values. When we founded the company as a couple with very similar values, we had never needed to discuss these issues. But it was important to see how much of this understanding was intuitively embodied by the team and to formulate these values as guiding principles for our daily work.
To create transparency and unify the team around a shared objective, we introduced the OKR method (Objectives and Key Results) as our sole management system. In trimester sprints, we define five corporate objectives that are based on proposals from team and management and that incorporate clear added value (for customers, for the company, for partners, for the environment, or for the team). Key results render these objectives – which are broken down into team outcomes – measurable, so that at the start of the trimester, each team member defines her or his own set of five objectives, which in turn contributes to the company’s core objectives. This way, everyone knows exactly what they want to do and what added value they can create by doing it. The team moves in a single direction and has a clear framework for coordinating their activities.
Using this framework and the clearly defined objectives, we can focus on the outcome – there’s no need to micromanage things in the process. Since Wildling considers results to be primarily dependent on creative performance, physical presence and the number of hours people actually put in are irrelevant, making monitoring and supervision superfluous. It makes no difference who is working when, where, and for how long – what matters is what we achieve together as a team. This way of working fosters a culture that allows great personal freedom based on trust and flexibility in terms of time and location.
The foundation of intrinsic motivation
While vision and values determine direction and purpose, results-oriented cooperation based on OKRs establishes the framework for autonomous work. By allowing everyone to set their own goals, the focus can be placed on activities that play to their own strengths.
Purpose, autonomy, and development based on personal strengths cultivate an environment where intrinsic motivation can naturally flourish. Add that to a strong identification with the cause, the company, and the team members, and it means that – although our work schedule is based on trust – we are more likely to have to tell our team members to stop working. (Incidentally, that’s not something we’re bragging about – it’s a serious task – making sure that nobody overdoes it.)
The opportunities and risks of work-life blending
Since our approach to work comes with a number of advantages, especially for young parents, it’s not surprising that the majority of Wildling’s employees have families. Eighty percent of the team is made up of women, most of whom are mothers, and many work under flexible part-time models. Remote work makes it easier to strike a balance between career and family, since work can be adapted to family life more flexibly. People’s own personal needs, hobbies, and lifestyles that allow time for pursuing interests other than work also benefit from this approach. If you don’t have to commute to the office, you add an average of one week of time to your life every year (and save some 15 metric tons of CO2 in the process). The degree of personal freedom is high; the feeling of autonomy, when you can determine your own daily routine to a large extent, gives rise to an enormous quality of life. Not using an alarm clock, being able to work at night in peace and quiet if that’s what you prefer, going for a jog between tasks, reserving Wednesdays for personal projects, working from Spain for two months or packing up the family and moving out to the country since work no longer dictates where you live – all this can be done without any problems.
Nonetheless, when the boundaries between life and work are fuzzy, there are also some risks to contend with. Particularly when work is fun, the temptation is great to reach for the cell phone and make one more call, check that last message in the team channel, answer just one last e-mail. It’s not that easy to shut the door between work and free time when you work from home, and conversely, your private life can sometimes creep into your workspace. When you start multitasking, reading e-mails over lunch, bouncing a child on your lap while you work, and reaching for your cell phone every five minutes, frustration can set in pretty quickly – because feeling like you’re not giving your full attention to anything or anyone just gets too overwhelming.
That’s why it is crucial to set clear boundaries and be disciplined about respecting them. We’ve laid down a few rules at Wildling to make this easier. Anyone who wants to focus on their work with no interruption simply blocks out the hours in the calendar and makes a point of going offline. E-mail and Asana inboxes (our virtual office) are checked once every 24 hours, Slack (our office water cooler and ad hoc communication channel) is checked 2–3 times a day. If something is really urgent (but only then), we pick up the phone. That way no one has to worry about hovering online all the time just so they don’t miss something.
The team leads are responsible for making sure that no one in their team is constantly working overtime and that people take regular time off. Anyone who is on vacation, on sick leave, or only working at certain times, sets their status and schedule accordingly. If they still show up in the team chat when they’re supposed to be off work, the response they get from their co-workers is pretty unambiguous: “Stop working and go home!”