8 Principles From Some of the Best Workplaces on the Planet

In: BlogDate: Nov 14, 2018By: Claire Lickman

In January 2016, Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree quit their boring corporate jobs to travel the world and visit the world’s most radical and engaged workplaces.

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8 Principles From Some of the Best Workplaces on the Planet

Thank you for having us here. We’d love to share with you some important lessons from the last 20 months of our lives. As Henry mentioned, we quit our corporate jobs because we were highly frustrated with the way these large organisations were run. We worked for about three years in big corporate. Me in Holland, Joost in Spain. We are both from Holland by the way, so if there is anything you don’t understand because of my English then please do ask.

We were both frustrated with the way these large organisations were run. Not so much with the work itself, we actually loved doing the work we were doing, just the organisations around it; the bureaucracy, the management style, the culture, it wasn’t something that we enjoyed working in and we couldn’t picture ourselves working there for 40 more years. So we decided to quit our jobs.

What now seems like a very good idea was then, in a lot of people’s eyes, was one of the most stupid ideas you could imagine. We wanted to start a business but we had no business model whatsoever. We said we don’t want a business model because we believe that first we need to learn what other organisations around the world are doing before we can actually add value to anybody or any organisation in the world.

So we set out to visit these radically inspiring workplaces, or at least the ones we personally thought were better workplaces than the ones that we worked in. So we started Corporate Rebels; we did that in January 2016 and nowadays there are three of us: myself, Joost and Freek. We continued to travel around the world to visit workplaces that we believed we could learn something from when it comes to creating an engaging workplace.

We packed our backpacks, we started travelling around the world; we thought we had savings for nine to 10 months, but when you start travelling around the world things are always pricier than you expect them to be and so after four or five months we realised we were running out of savings. Then, of course, all the people around us started saying that this ‘starting without a business model’ was indeed a really bad idea. Luckily things changed over the course of those five months because we got some publicity here and there around the world and organisations started to ask us: “What is it that you learn from visiting all these workplaces? And you have this list of inspiring workplaces what is it actually that we can learn, as a organisation, to become more engaging or more inspiring for our employees?” So that’s still what we do.

Before we go into what we do nowadays and the main lessons that we learned we’ll have some quick questions, not only to get the blood flowing, but also to get an insight into how progressive your workplaces at the moment actually are. We have some statements, if you agree with the statement please stand up, if not you can remain seated.

First one: “Our employees are highly engaged.” So if you agree with this statement please stand up and if not then remain seated. (All but two people stand.)

At least there are two honest people in this room. We ask this question all over the world and people always say that their employees are highly engaged. You can tell me a lot of things but I do not believe this. And I’m pretty sure that if you went to the organisations that we worked in and asked the CEOs there then I’m 100% sure that they would also stand up; but at the same time I am certain that not all of the people in that organisation were not highly motivated.

Okay. Let’s see if there is more honesty in the next answer: “Barriers between leaders and employees are minimised.”

One very clear example of when there are still barriers within organisations is status symbols. For example, a privilege for top management: reserved parking spots, fancy corner offices or nice fancy top floors whilst employees are sitting somewhere on the bottom of the building. These simple, small status symbols can mean a lot for an organisation and can really create barriers between leaders and employees. Not only therefore function titles or job descriptions but also these small things. It’s something that a lot of organisations actually get rid of to make sure that they are minimising these barriers.

Right: “Our employees are free to work when and where they want.” (Some people stand.) So if they would love to go kite surfing next week in Spain? (Laughter – a few people sit down.)

Alright, “Our teams select their own leaders.” In which organisations does that happen? (Some people stand up. Pim gestures to the one of the people standing up.) Of course, Happy do this. And you? You’re from Happy as well!

More organisations have started doing this. Why? Because they want to create a culture of supportive leadership instead of directive leadership. When you have managers evaluate their team members, chances are you create a more directive leadership culture because the people do not get to say anything about the performance of the leaders. We have, of course, a 360 feedback system that was discussed before. But some organisations go a step further and they even let employees only evaluate their manager and not the other way around. Even sometimes select their own leaders, like for example here at Happy.

Next we have: “Our employees determine their own salaries.”

No, nobody standing this time. It doesn’t happen that often that people actually stand up, unless they’re self-employed, but there are more and more companies doing this. Actually putting their own people in charge of setting their own salaries. Why? Because it engages them even more in running the business, and taking into account the costs and revenues. ‘What can we spend on salary levels? What do we want to spend on salary levels?’ It is something that more organisations have actually started doing.

For example, a Dutch IT company, they employ about 300 people. They made this transformation as well, the first step they did was opening up the salary levels to everyone in the company to show it was fair and it was not fair, in the opinion of the employees, they had to think of a solution. Then they said: ‘First we teach people the basic financials of an organisation’ because surprisingly most people don’t know. So first they train them in the basic financials and then they involved them in setting their own salaries to become more entrepreneurs than just simply employees. And it worked wonders for them, most people did not raise their salaries higher than the normal pay raises and they actually set their salary increases lower than management would normally have. They would do this in teams.

Another Dutch company, financial consultancy company, what they do is they set their own salary, then ask advice from their team members whether that’s too high or too low and they use that advice to come up with their final decision. So they decide in the end but they listen to the advice of their peers. And the peer pressure, or the peer control, whatever you want to call it, actually does it’s work there.

This, 20 months after we started, is our current website and blog, as Henry mentioned; which we write twice a week about all the things we discover and learn while travelling the world. It gives you a little bit of an idea of what we do. I’ll give you some details: we’re currently writing a book, doing a tour all over the world in which we share the lessons that we’ve learnt, we support organisations to make the transformation to, for example, opening their salary levels, we write for some media outlets and the most important thing is our bucket list.

As you know a bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you die, before you kick the bucket. For us, when we started, our bucket list it was a list of people and organisations that we wanted to visit to learn how to create more engaging workplaces. This is a small snapshot of that bucket list. Nowadays, we have about 85 organisations and people on there, of which we have visited about 60 now. You can see familiar names, Google, Spotify which are, especially Google, not the most progressive workplaces that are there although they are very proud of being progressive.

A beautiful example that not a lot of people know of, in Holland, is Buurtzorg, which is a 14,000 employee nursing company. So 14,000 nurses without a single manager in their organisation, fully self managed team of 10 to 12 nurses who tend to their own neighbourhoods. And by doing that, over ten years time, they have grown from four to 14,000 nurses with a headquarters with only 40 people. Nowadays they are the most successful healthcare provider in Holland, spreading to Japan, to the UK and they’ve done some pilots here as well. Because they get rid of so much bureaucracy and so much slowness and tardiness in organisations they are simply shown to just outperform their competitors and are taking over from all of their competitors in Holland at the moment. And simply providing better healthcare, as clients get better sooner with the help of Buurtzorg, employees are happier and costs are half of other healthcare organisations.

They really challenged the status quo in how organisations worked and there’s a lot of these beautiful examples out there that we simply don’t know about most of the time. So that’s what we set out to do: let’s visit them, let’s share their stories so that more people understand that there’s an alternative to organising work.

Now we want to go into the main trends of these workplaces. We wanted to draw some general lessons to understand and to show to people what is it that they actually do different than many traditional ‘command and control’ style workplaces. So let’s go through them and we’ll dive into detail on two of them.

On the left-hand side you see the focus of more traditional organisations, on the right-hand side the focus of the more progressive organisations. The first one is from a focus on profit to a focus on purpose and values. What do I want to contribute to the world? And in what way do I want to do that with my employees with my customers, with my suppliers?

What these organisations say, they say profit is important, as an organisation you need it to survive. But it is the same as oxygen, we need it to stay alive but it’s not the reason we exist. These organisations say that as well, they say ‘We live for our purpose, that is why we exist, we need profit to survive, we need a healthy financial situation to survive, but it is not the reason we exist.’

From a hierarchical pyramid to a network of teams. We’re all familiar with this hierarchical pyramid and with the silos and the lack of communication between the people. And you see these organisations, whether it’s Buurtzorg, Spotify or manufacturing companies or even governmental organisations, they move away from this and they organise their people in networks of multidisciplinary teams, mostly between 10 and 15 people per team. And then sometimes they have, for example Spotify have some other connections that are only focused on the teams, or ‘squads’ as they call them there.

From directive leadership to supportive leadership, so from bosses who tell people what to do to leaders, or coaches, or whatever it is you want to call them, who support their employees in the best way they can. As mentioned getting rid of status symbols, privileges and making sure managers or coaches are being evaluated by their team members and not the other way around.

From plan and predict to experiment and adapt. So from making long term plans, long term budgeting and then finding out all steps to take and then during that process finding out that reality is way harder than you could have predicted beforehand. These organisations say: ‘We should just trial all this stuff, experiment with new ways of working with new products, with new services and learn from the evaluations of those experiments.’ So Spotify, for instance, try to fill faster than anyone else. ‘As long as we fill, we try new stuff and if we make sure that we learn from that then we’ll be better that the competition.’ Google has its famous, or had its famous, 20% time in which engineers got 20% of their time to devote on projects they thought were good for Google. For example, Gmail and Adsense came out of that.

From rules in control to freedom and trust. One of my personal favourites. I had to travel a lot for work and I had to fill in these awful expense claims when I came back. It took ages to fill them in to make sure the were according to all of the company guidelines. Then I had to send it to my manager for approval, then to his manager for approval and then they were sent, believe it or not, to a separate department in the organisation that was exclusively setup to control travel expenses. Because there were 4,000 people in that company travelling a lot and they were constantly checking whether these expense claims were according to the company rules and guidelines. This took a huge amount of effort, time, frustration as well, and money to have these control mechanisms in place.

For example Netflix says, we don’t want all these mechanisms in place. We only have one rule in our travel policy which is ‘act in Netflix’s best interest.’ So use the money as if it were your own; we’re not going to have any rules in place just make sure you spend the money wisely. If you think you need an expensive restaurant dinner to make sure a client says yes or whatever, do it. If you think you can do with less then go ahead and do that. They just let their people use their common sense and it works wonders for them because they don’t have all this frustration and spend all this money on control mechanisms.

From centralised authority to distributed authority, so from one person or a few people in the organisation calling the shots to everyone calling the shots. There’s a lot of interesting practices for that. For example, the advice process, which is an alternative way of decision making, normally we make decisions based on hierarchy or consensus but the advice process is one that really creates initiative and entrepreneurship in employees. What they use here at Happy is pre-approval which I’m pretty sure Henry will go into detail on later but it is used to really distribute authority to the people, to the front-line employees instead of top managers taking the most important decisions.

From secrecy to radical transparency. Where a lot of organisations say all information is open by default. If we cannot have it open by default, if the information requires secrecy, then we do it it but otherwise the information is open as much as possible. So from salary levels, to company financials, to performance reviews, to communication, to decision making; everything is made transparent so people really can get involved and engaged in running the organisation.

And the final one. From job descriptions and job titles to talents and masteries. So getting rid of job descriptions, getting rid of fancy titles, that often don’t even say a thing because if you work at one company with a fancy job title it could mean something completely different at another organisation. It sometimes seems like it is just a battle to see who can have the most fancy title. These organisations say it actually limits us from putting our talents into practice so they say let’s get rid of them and get people to focus on what they love, what they are good at and to make sure that they can become better and better so that the organisation can most benefit from their talent.

So, a very quick overview: the most important eight trends that we see within these organisations and we’d like to go into detail on two of them. To give you an example of an organisation that does it, how they do it, and to get some discussion going these trends could mean to you as an organisation.

First one. Believe it or not, there are governmental organisations who do this, even in Belgium; there’s always a bit of rivalry between Holland and Belgium so that’s why I say this! This guy is Frank Van Massenhove, he is head of the Ministry of Social Security in Brussels and when he applied for that job during his job interview he said, ‘I’m going to run this organisation in a very traditional manner. I’m going to this command and control style, I’m going to optimise the processes, tell people what to do, and how to do their job and then we will become the most successful ministry there is.’ The moment he got the job he went into his people and said, ‘I’m not going to do this, this was all a bunch of lies, I don’t believe that this will actually work. So what we are going to do is create an environment in which you love to work. That is going to be my main focus. I’m going to make you love your job. But I need your input.’

As we mentioned before, talk to your employees, this is one of the most crucial things we learned from him but also from others; simply listen to your employees, don’t start making fancy plans today, here with other CEOs. Go back to your people, listen to your employees on what they think can be improved, and starting working and start designing experiments from there.

This is exactly what he did. He sat down with his people and asked, ‘What is it that you want to make your job more fun?’ and one of the things that was very important to them was they said we want the freedom to determine where we work, when we work, how they work, and with whom we work; ‘We don’t want anyone to tell us what to do or how to do it.’ This was of course a bit frightening to him, especially in the beginning when they came up with all these ideas. So they said let’s start experimenting with small stuff and see where we can grow from there.

Over about three or fours years they changed the organisation by designing and executing small experiments, learning from them and then adopting their way of working based on that. In the end, after about four years and they still work like this, all the people in the organisation can determine when they work. He doesn’t care, he says: ‘As long as you get the results, and get the job done, you can work wherever and whenever you want.’ So in an average day 150 people, out of the 1,500 that work there, are in the office. So only 10% of the employees are actually in the office, the rest are working from home, the bar, wherever they prefer – or not at all, because also he says ‘if you don’t want to work, if you want to do your work in another moment in time, or you’ve already finished, I don’t care, just go ahead and do whatever you want.’ So they can work wherever, or whenever, and with whomever they want.

There are no fixed teams. People can themselves decide which teams they join or which people they gather to make something work or to execute something that they need in order to get the results done. And they get rid of a lot of rules and processes on how to do their jobs. They are fully in charge of determining how they do their job. Fixed meetings and stuff were all skipped he says, ‘If you want to meet people you don’t need to schedule it four weeks in advance, you just go there and ask them what you want to know.’

Nowadays these people are fully free to determine everything about their jobs. Another thing he said is: ‘It’s also up to you to determine what the office will look like. I’m not going to hire a fancy office designer to do that, it’s up to you to find a way to make this work.’ So they came back with all these plans and they executed those plans. So now all of the offices look really fancy because they hired designers to do it. But it was their decision to do it. It was most clear when we visited the IT department, he showed it to us, he was quite proud of it, he walked to the office he opened up the door, remember here too the all of the offices look really fancy, and he said, ‘This is where IT works.’ No windows, no lights, just computers and big computer screens in there and he said, ‘We gave the freedom and this is apparently what they like to work in.’ So not only saying and giving people the freedom but actually doing it and letting them decide themselves on what they are doing and how and where they want to work is really key to what this transformation did to this organisation.

So some results, because it’s also nice to hear that it was also successful and not just some freewheeling organisation. First, they invested 10 million in costs to make sure that they got this result-based working in place and the flexible infrastructure, for their technology and stuff. After that they got nine million in annual savings for office space only. So by making sure that people could work where and when they wanted, they could reduce their office space by a huge amount. An average 50% annual productivity increase over 10 years, still going on. They moved from 2,100 employees to 1,300 over three years. Which might sound very painful, and it definitely was painful for them as an organisation, but on the other hand, taxpayers pay for their services and now it can be done so much more efficiently with so many less employees that it is a benefit for the country as a whole.

Another interesting one, because a lot of organisations always say ‘we have a hard time attracting the right talent’, for them, this was also a serious problem. Only 18% of the people that were recent graduates in that field chose to work for their department out of the 10 departments they could choose from. Nowadays, 93% of them want to work for his department because of their new radical way of working. On a vacancy, an average amount of replies was three beforehand; now, it’s 57. So you can really see what it did to them as an organisation when it comes to attracting talent.

They also have the lowest sick leave in the entire country, so it really worked wonders for them and now we’d like you to think what this might mean to you as an organisation and which rules and policies could be destroyed to create more freedom and trust for employees.

The next trend: radical transparency. Who’s familiar with UKTV? The company? Only two people? We really thought, before we came here today, that UKTV was quite a well known employer here in the UK. Apparently not, but after Sky and BBC, they are the biggest multi-channel broadcaster here. We just learned they have Dave, the channel. That might be familiar?

They have a lot of channels, but the more important thing is how they run their organisation nowadays. Because when the CEO, Darren Childs, came into his position, he felt like the organisation was not living up to its full potential. He said, ‘We have a lot of creative people here, but they have no clue how the business is run and therefore they are not engaged, not involved in actually running it. We need more transparency, need to reduce the barriers between leaders and employees, and I’m going to make a strong effort to do that.’

So in a couple of years, he took some important steps. The first step was actually tearing down the walls of his office. His office was right in the corner and he tore down the walls to create more transparency and make it easier for people to come up to him and ask questions, but also for him to share information. So he simply sat at the desks right next to the employees. But still, he didn’t feel like that was the right – or the only right – thing to do. There were still a lot of barriers. What he did was he started creating these meetings that you see here, so-called ‘Town Hall’ meetings. A lot of companies nowadays do it, for example Google does it every Friday afternoon; Spotify does it every three weeks. Organisations do it to create more transparency to show what state the business is currently in, what the latest developments are, what are the challenges, what are the successes, and sometimes even sharing the biggest failures. He did that to engage people; and, by the way, don’t make these things obligatory, because then, all of a sudden, people don’t like to show up if you try to make them. But also, it doesn’t trigger the meeting to be as useful as possible, because everyone shows up all the time, you have no clue whether it’s successful or not. If you do this and don’t make it obligatory and people don’t show up – for sure, you’re doing something wrong and it’s not useful to people.

So he started doing this, but still there wasn’t enough transparency in the organisation, so he did some other things. He let the employees determine the performance of their leaders, so they evaluated their leaders, and he opened up all their performance reviews. He said we have zero tolerance for bad leadership, so we want to know where in the organisation we have bad leaders so that we can either train them to improve, or replace them with people who are better suited to leading a team to make sure they can excel. That worked very well for them because all of a sudden, this was something they could talk about and could start a dialogue on and it really helped them to improve leadership in the organisation.

Another thing he did was, at these ‘Town Hall’ meetings, he said: ‘ask all the questions you want’, but people still didn’t do that – especially because the crowd was big, they didn’t want to ask stupid questions, or because they were afraid of asking the really tough questions. So what he did was put a big black box on the wall with a white question mark on it and throughout the week people could put their questions in anonymously. Whatever question they wanted to ask, personal or business, they could ask it. He would open up this box on stage during this ‘Town Hall’ meeting and answer the questions on the spot. Not preparing any fancy political answers, but answering them on the spot to show the people that he was there to support them, he wanted them to know everything going on within the organisation, within our minds and what we, as an organisation, want to achieve. This symbolic gesture was really important for them because it became more common to ask tough questions within the organisation and to become even more transparent.

Another interesting thing is, as we discussed before, people often don’t know the basic financials of an organisation. We went to a cookie factory where they also increased transparency. Why? Because the director became really frustrated with the fact that all of the employees constantly came up to him asking for pay rises. This might sound familiar to you as well, but he said: ‘We simply cannot do it.’ People went back frustrated thinking ‘I can’t get a pay rise. They make a lot of money as an organisation, so why can’t they spend more on salary?’ Having heard these complaints for a long time, what he did was he said, ‘Maybe I have to explain to them the financial situation we are in.’

So he made it very simple, he drew this big package of cookies and showed them that nowadays we sell these cookies for two euros, the revenue for each package is two euros, this is the cost we spend on marketing, this is the cost we spend on production, on raw materials, on salary levels, and he built up the entire cost of this package of cookies and he said, ‘There are two things we can do to increase your salary levels. We can either raise the price of the cookies, but we probably won’t sell enough anymore. Or, we can play around with any of the other costs we have, become more efficient in the way we work, and then we can increase your salary levels.’ And all of a sudden, people understood what was going on and they saw the cost for waste in the production process and they started focusing on eliminating waste as much as possible. So the interesting thing is that people were not put on a training programme for lean or any other methodology but they themselves thought they wanted to decrease this waste and how do we do that? Because if we do that then we could would increase our salary levels. So all of a sudden people were really engaged and involved in running the organisation, simply because they understood what was going on financially; and this is something we see in a lot of organisations.

A very powerful tool called ‘open book management’ does something very similar to this. We wrote a blog post on it which is definitely worth seeing because it’s a very powerful tool to actually engage employees by opening up the company’s financials.

Alright a quick question for you: how would my organisation benefit from more transparency? Let’s discuss this on the tables for about two minutes and then I’d love to hear some of the answers.

More on these crazy examples and what organisations are doing around the world to challenge the status quo. Go to the website, there’s blogs on over 60 of these workplaces, and the best practices, and the things they actually do to change the way they work.

For those really into it and anyone experimenting now, for example, with getting rid of the parking spot, there’s this Slack channel. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Slack, but it’s a team collaboration tool which, first of all, gets rid of a lot of emails, but also makes it really easy for people to gather in communities or with their teams.

We’ve opened up our Corporate Rebels Slack for everyone who wants to join. There’s now more than a thousand people in there from all over the world who are interested in sharing knowledge and learning from each other. For example, on opening up salary levels – if you join that, please let us know how the experiment went and what the responses of the people were. I’m sure those thousand people in there would love to hear.

Thank you very much for your time, and I hope you have a great day with lots of inspiration and great ideas to change the way you work. Thank you very much.

What they realised is that a lot of these great workplaces are not very well known – and so set out to visit them and share their stories so that more people could understand that there’s an alternative way to managing and organising your workplace. They also noticed trends between each of the engaged workplaces they visited, with many developing similar ideas and principles.

Joost and Pim created the Corporate Rebels to share what they found with others. Initially, the Corporate Rebels was just a blog and website, but they now are a team of seven and tour the world sharing ideas from great workplaces and support organisations who want to implement them.

One of the key trends they noticed is to simply listen to your employees – listen to what they think can be improved, and start working on improvements and make changes based on what they’d like to see.

The other is radical transparency – when the CEO of UKTV came into his position, he reduced the barriers between leaders and employees by sharing information about the company’s finances, the performance reviews of the leadership team. He also allowed all employees to ask him anything they wanted at their weekly Town Hall staff meetings, with all questions added to a box that was opened on stage at the meeting.

“By the way, don’t make these things obligatory, because then, all of a sudden, people don’t like to show up if you try to make them. But also, it doesn’t trigger the meeting to be as useful as possible, because everyone shows up all the time, you have no clue whether it’s successful or not. If you do this and don’t make it obligatory and people don’t show up – for sure, you’re doing something wrong and it’s not useful to people,” says Pim.

In this 20-minute video from the 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO Conference, Pim talks about the eight trends that he and his fellow Corporate Rebels have noticed within some of the world’s most engaged workplaces, including two in detail, that you can learn from and try in your organisation.

What you’ll hear in this video

  • How radical is your workplace really? Listen to these statements and find out – and hear examples of some organisations that have implemented these ideas (2:48)
  • The eight main trends at some of the world’s most engaged workplaces, including Buurtzorg, Netflix, Google and Spotify (10:08)
  • Listen to your employees – how Frank van Massenhove of the Ministry of Social Security in Brussels asked his employees how he could make the organisation more fun, and what happened when he implemented their ideas (17:05)
  • Radical transparency – how Darren Childs, the CEO of UKTV, created complete transparency around every element of the company and the results (23:36)

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Claire Lickman

Claire is Head of Marketing at Happy. She has worked at Happy since 2016, and is responsible for Happy's marketing strategy, website, social media and more. Claire first heard about Happy in 2012 when she attended a mix of IT and personal development courses. These courses were life-changing and she has been a fan of Happy ever since. She has a personal blog at lecari.co.uk.

More by Claire

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