Individuality in the workplace fosters free thinking, loyalty
|Bob Pritchett, president and CEO of Logos Bible Software, has some fun with a Hoberman Sphere in his downtown offices. Pritchett said he wants to create a company atmosphere that is at the same time casual, creative and professional.|
The office used to be a war zone for Bob Pritchett, and the enemies were everywhere. Adversaries may have included the software developer just down the hall, or perhaps a member of another department.
Whoever the foe, his Non-Expanding Recreational Foam (Nerf) Gun was there to protect him.
"I was at Microsoft, and everybody in my department had a Nerf gun," he said. "You’d be bored, so you’d just go shoot the guy down the hall, or maybe all the developers in your hall would go and (shoot) the marketing department."
Such was life at Microsoft in the early 1990s for Pritchett and fellow co-workers, where employment environs featured foam-style combat and hard work. While Pritchett worked with the Redmond-based company for only 15 months, the lessons he absorbed there have stayed with him.
"When I was there, it felt like a very free and open place," said Pritchett, who co-founded Logos Bible Software approximately 15 years ago when he was 19 years old.
"My partner and I consciously adopted a lot of stuff from Microsoft. We took their employee manual, and it largely became the model for (Logos)," he said.
In addition to the employee guidelines, Pritchett also adopted the management attitude of the company.
"A lot of what we do is creative," he said. "You see a lot of creativity in software development. You see a lot of casual workplace (scenarios). People have flexible hours. We are trying to make it an environment where people’s minds are active, and they are coming up with new solutions and hopefully things that are really unique in the marketplace."
This kind of flexibility — which allows employees to stretch the limits of company policy and maintain a degree of individuality while conforming to a company’s mission — can be a challenging plateau to reach.
Creating casual creativity
The ideal workplace setting is one where people can be casual and creative — but also professional, Pritchett said.
"The important part of being professional for me is not just about how we look to our customers, but how we treat each other and our ability to work as a team," he said. "You can take being creative and being free to too far, as well. A software-development team is a group of people that have to work together."
For example, while Logos software developers may work non- traditional hours that include time apart from team members, the employees still need to work together as a single unit. This means working nontraditional hours may not always be an effective option or in the company’s best interest, Pritchett said.
"We’re always trying to balance that rigidity of the rules you need in order to make the team function well, versus giving people freedom," Pritchett said. "Letting software developers work their own hours is great for being flexible and giving people the feeling that they are not locked in, but if somebody works the night shift instead of the day, they never get to interact with their team members. Finding the balance of those things is difficult."
Bradley Grainger, a 27-year-old Logos software developer, said the company has done a good job finding this balance.
"It’s really pretty relaxed, which I enjoy a lot," said Grainger, whose desk is adorned with several colorful gadgets and a gel squeeze toy. "It’s really self-regulated and self-monitored. There is a lot of trust given to the employees. I think (the company) respects that, and I try to live up to that."
To this end, Pritchett said he tries to minimize the level of employee policy whenever possible.
"We try to put in the rules that have a benefit in terms of the end result, and not bother with the ones that don’t," he said. "We have a dress code, but it’s a very simplistic dress code."
Casual attire is okay, as long as the customer is considered, Pritchett said.
"Our customer base is pastors, so we have some (dress code) guidelines," Pritchett said. "If you are in our office with our customers, we don’t want you wearing T-shirts with vulgar sayings, sexual references, or things like that because it isn’t going to go over well with our customer base."
In addition to personal appearance, Pritchett said employees are given license to express themselves in their workspaces as well — to a degree.
"We don’t have a lot of guidelines. I don’t think it’s very formal," Pritchett said. "Occasionally, the executive assistant needs to send out an e-mail or walk around and say, ‘Clean up your room.’ And that’s pretty much about avoiding any health hazards or staying productive in terms of not being buried knee deep in paper."
Because Logos is a sizeable company (the Bellingham business has approximately 115 employees), Pritchett said it is important to present a uniform appearance whenever possible. For example, a graphic designer on staff is in charge of all outgoing company correspondence, and e-mails to clients that contain jokes in the signature box are not allowed. However, a company logo or a photo in the signature box may be allowed in some cases, Pritchett said.
"We try to keep it professional while still letting people be different," he said. Allowing employees to be more informal with customers also helps customer relations, he said.
"We want (customers) to feel like you got an e-mail from Sara, not from ‘technical support agent 3924.’ And so, they do sign e-mails with names," he said. "I think there is a difference that we are always struggling with of where to draw the line of being personal and being professional in terms of customer interactions."
A historical shift
Dr. Karen Bradley, a sociologist working at Western Washington University, said the issue of individualism in the workplace is something that has evolved over time. Bradley recently started a research project on the topic with a colleague.
"This is a historical shift," Bradley said. "It wasn’t previously considered that employees would either be entitled to or be interested in freedom of personal expression in the workplace, but that is something that has developed over time."
While not all occupations have experienced the shift, those in more creative fields — such as software development — have seemed to realize the change, she said.
"It depends on which workers you’re looking at," said Bradley, who teaches a course on work and occupations. "Many of the students in my class work in retail, where they are getting more scripted. The employers are telling them more and more exactly what to say and exactly what to wear and how to greet the customer. So their freedom of expression has become more restricted over time."
While Bradley said she doesn’t know the tangible benefits of creating a more open environment for employees, employers who try to foster this type of atmosphere are likely hoping for several positive side effects.
"I think that one of the hopes that people have who try to encourage individualism in the workplace is that it would encourage employee loyalty," she said. "If (employees) feel like parts of their self beyond their paycheck are being fulfilled in the workplace, they might be more willing to stay."
Creativity may also be improved in this type of situation, she said.
"Anything that might encourage workers to be thinking in creative ways might then lead to that (new) product, or that discovery that would further the company," she said.
Said Pritchett: "I think that you get people that are happier about their jobs because they don’t have to play a different role. The difference between their personal and their professional role is smaller. I think probably everybody is a little bit different at work than they are when they are not. If we can minimize that or make you feel like you don’t have to put yourself in a box when you come to the office, it lets people be more creative, and creates an environment where people have more trust."
Rights in the workplace
When it comes to the issue of free expression in the private sector — from an employee standpoint — the employer is clearly in the driver’s seat, said Jeff Fairchild, an employment law attorney in Bellingham.
Whether it is a dispute over wearing a particular T-shirt instead of a company uniform, or a limitation on certain types of employee speech, the employer essentially has the right to set the standards.
"In the private setting, employers are free to set reasonable guidelines concerning neatness, dress, appearance and hygiene," Fairchild said. "The employer can lay out these standards as long as they are reasonable."
For example, employers can establish dress codes or require uniforms, he said.
"The other thing the employer is free to do is to set different standards for their male and female employees, as far as dress codes and dress standards. There is really a lot of freedom for a private employer to control the appearance of their workplace and the appearance of their individual employees."
However, even employer control has boundaries, Fairchild said. Employees may be able to cry discrimination if employee policy is not applied equally and evenly.
"If an employer required female employees to dress a certain way or adopt a certain dress code, but had no comparable requirements for males, (this could be discrimination). The requirements don’t have to be the same for females and males. They just have to burden both equally."
Religious beliefs or medical conditions may require employer and employee flexibility on issues of dress, such as an employee who wants to wear a turban to work for religious reasons, he said.
"(Employers) have to explore accommodating (a scenario like this)," he said. "Sometimes you would have to allow it. Other times, (you can’t allow it). For example, if an individual has to wear a hard hat at work for safety reasons, you might not be able to accommodate (the employee). But you at least have to have that discussion."
Outside of some medical and religious issues, employees of private companies have limited rights, he said. Whatever kind of expression it is — be it dress, speech or office decorum — employers should try to spell out the policies for employees as to avoid misunderstandings.
"I think it is important for employers to sit down and evaluate what is really a major concern for their business, and what isn’t," Fairchild said. "The employer needs to communicate (policies) to employees, and to a certain extent, the rationale (behind the rules). That’s typically done through well-drafted policies."