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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Brad Garlinghouse, What I got wrong in the Peanut Butter Manifesto
I’ve met Phil Libin, back when Evernote launched, and I was struck at his openness and ability to listen. Sounds like I need to catch up with him again. I hope to profile him in a new series I plan to launch this summer, called Workscape, which will profile leaders, companies, and visionaries who are working to change the nature of work, in a rapidly changing, post-everything world. Here’s a recent conversation he had with Adam Bryant:
Adam Bryant via NY Times: Tell me about the culture of your company.
Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote: We have a flat and very open structure. Nobody has an office. In fact, there are no perks that are signs of seniority. Obviously, there are differences in compensation, but there are no status symbols. You certainly don’t get a better seat or any of that kind of stuff, because they’re just unnecessary. They create artificial barriers to communication. They create artificial things that people focus on rather than just getting their job accomplished. We try to have an organization that just helps you get your work done, and then it’s my job to eliminate all of the risks and all the distractions so you can just focus on achieving. That attracts people who are primarily motivated by how much they achieve.
Bryant: What else is unusual about your workplace?
Libin: We got rid of phones in the office. Just on a whim, I thought that at every company we start, and this is the third one, we’re going to eliminate one piece of unnecessary technology. So this time it was phones. We thought, why do you really need a phone? If you have a phone at your desk, it’s just sitting there and you’re kind of encouraging people to talk on it. Everyone’s got a cellphone, and the company pays for the plans. There are phones in the conference room. We’re not a sales organization, so we’re not making a lot of calls, either. If you’re at your desk, you should be working. And that’s actually worked really well. I don’t think anyone misses phones. Even though it’s one big room, it’s actually fairly quiet because no one is sitting there talking at their desk. The culture very much is that if you want to talk, you go 10 or 20 feet in some direction to a quiet area.
Bryant: But don’t people then just resort to e-mail?
Libin: One of the things I’ve tried to do is uproot any sort of e-mail culture at Evernote. We strongly discourage lengthy e-mail threads with everyone weighing in. It’s just not good for that. Plus, it’s dangerous, because it’s way too easy to misread the tone of something. If you want to talk to somebody and you’re a couple floors apart, I kind of want you to get up and go talk to them.
Bryant: So tell me more about your culture.
Libin: We recently implemented something called Evernote Officer Training. I got this idea from a friend who served on a Trident nuclear submarine. He said that in order to be an officer on one of these subs, you have to know how to do everyone else’s job. Those skills are repeatedly trained and taught. And I remember thinking, “That’s really cool.” So we implemented officer training at Evernote. The program is voluntary. If you sign up, we will randomly assign you to any other meeting. So pretty much anytime I have a meeting with anyone, or anyone else has a meeting with anyone, very often there is somebody else in there from a totally different department who’s in officer training. They’re there to absorb what we’re talking about. They’re not just spectators. They ask questions; they talk. My assistant runs it, and she won’t schedule any individual for more than two extra meetings a week. We don’t want this consuming too much of anybody’s time.
Bryant: Tell me about some other things you do.
Libin: We recently changed our vacation policy to give people unlimited vacation, so they can take as much time as they want, as long as they get their job done. If you want to take time off, talk to your team, but we’re still measuring you on the same thing, which is, did you accomplish something great? Frankly, we want to treat employees like adults, and we don’t want being in the office to seem like a punishment. We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing it this way, so we just stop doing it.
Bryant: Is the unlimited vacation policy working?
Libin: So far. We had to modify it slightly because one of the first things I started worrying about is whether people would actually take less vacation. I don’t want people not to take any vacation because that’s just bad for them, and it’s bad for me. You’re not going to get a lot of work out of someone if they haven’t taken a vacation in a while. So we started rewarding people for taking at least a week at a time on a real trip by giving them $1,000 spending money. That seems to be going well.