Building a Workplace that Doesn’t Suck

In January 2008, when I founded iThemes in my home, I didn’t originally intend to build a local office like we have now. I was just fine working from home and having a remote team scattered throughout the world.

But one of our first team members we brought on was local to me and specifically asked for an office. He said he would work better in that environment and that his house would likely be a big distraction for him.

Reluctantly, I sought and found a small office that we shared (it was about 275 sq. ft. and about 2 miles from my home) and ended up thoroughly enjoying “going to an office” again.

So far we have had 4 “offices” to date …. and it’s brought me back to some ideas I had collected and seen over 15+ years of working in different workplaces.

Additionally, the rich benefits we’ve been able to see as a result of our workplace environment — camaraderie and communication are worth it alone — I’m a huge fan of creating a shared workspace that inspires people. It becomes a magnet for great people and a factory of amazing results.

So on the heels of the Creating an Inspiring Workspace post, where we give an overview of the current iThemes workspace, I thought I’d share a lightning talk I gave at OpenBeta in Oklahoma City in the fall 2010 on this subject.

It’s called Building a Workplace that Doesn’t Suck.

Here are my thoughts on what it takes to create an inspiring workplace (with my slides below):

  1. Work and workplaces shouldn’t suck, they should inspire — Over the past 15+ years I dreamed about finding or creating the ideal workplace and this is what I came up with: I want to go to work somewhere where I love what I do, get paid well and fairly to do it, love the people I work with … and give my life to something bigger than I can do by myself. (Coincidentally, most everybody else wants this too.)
  2. If you don’t like it, change it — Life is too short to suck. If you don’t like your job, your workplace, change it. This is freakin’ America after all. I won’t beg someone to stay. I’d rather encourage to leave.
  3. Fact: Happy people work harder, better, longer — and I like being around happy, fulfilled, energetic, excited, passionate people, don’t you? Complete wellness begins and dominoes with your career (see Well Being: The Five Essential Elements). Happy people love their jobs and live fulfilled lives in other areas generally. Being happy in your career is foundational.
  4. Discover your team’s strengths and shuffle the batting order accordingly — I want to discover what people are passionate about and what they are best at … and turn them loose to do it. I prefer finding people who have strengths and finding ways to plug in that power to our team. Unhappy people are in jobs that focus on weakness.
  5. Empower people to be mini-entrepreneurs — allow entrepreneurial work (without the B.S. admin stuff). Entrepreneurs want autonomy, freedom, control … unhappy yet talented people leave because they don’t have it … give them it with boundaries and without the hassle.
  6. Your team is your extended family — Love, care, protect, provide for them. If you don’t actually love or even like your team …. I hope you fail fast and take as few victims with you on your crash.
  7. Recruit for initiative, drive and fit — I will always hire for these qualities over talent alone. The most talented person could be the most destructive person to your culture.
  8. Break bread together — We have daily retreats together at lunch. Sharing meals is amazing for camaraderie.
  9. Ignore the noise — meaning remove the noise. Eliminate all distractions. Screw the competition. Flush bitterness and jealousy quickly. Focus only on what matters. And that’s your team, your work and your community.
  10. Embrace communal living — Let your team make their workspace their second home and what they want it to be, together.
  11. Lead with vision, inspire with purpose — Give people purpose, and a vision of life together. Compelling visions and stories with purpose inspires greatness.
  12. Develop your own language — We have inside jokes, do stupid videos. Our species, our brand speaks our language. Having a language for your tribe creates bonds.
  13. Sharpen swords — Help your team sharpen their sword and hone their craft. It’s about Mastery (see Daniel Pink’s awesome book called Drive). Provide the right training and tools for your team to excel.
  14. Get dirty — Take out the trash, literally. Do everything and more that you expect your team to do.
  15. Eat dead trees — and force feed them to your team. Learning doesn’t stop after you graduate. Foster an environment of lifelong learning.
  16. Cut out the cancers — Quickly before they spread, and infect and poison your culture.
  17. Take a roadtrip We have taken several roadtrips together and amazing things always come as a result. In the summer of 2010, we rented an RV and roadtripped to a conference in Boulder, Colo. But whatever you do,  take regular retreats out of town. Force each other to be together and get to know each other.
  18. Have fun, working hard — Challenge and push people. To be and do better. To reach and exceed their potential. Settle for nothing less. Have fun! Celebrate. Cry. But Be Happy. Celebrate!
Building a Workplace that Doesn’t Suck

View more presentations from Cory Miller.
Here’s the actual lightning talk from Open Beta:

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7 thoughts on “Building a Workplace that Doesn’t Suck”

  1. Seriously cool post, I love so many of the points.

    No. 10: i heard recently of someone saying their office has now enforced a clean desk rule where they can’t have photos, etc. Madness!

    I have become so annoyed working for a corporate company, it actually makes me sick with how they treat their employees (think throw away commodity). This year I aim at building the foundation so I become employed by someone who cherishes their employees or I go on to build a workplace that doesn’t suck! Even if I am the sole owner.

    Thanks for the read Cory, when are you employing? 😉

  2. There’s nothing worse than an environment that saps your creativity or comfort. Every entrepreneur should think about their space as an asset that helps enable and energize their team. Great topic for discussion.

  3. I have not yet had the need for my own office but this us a fantastic post.

    Over the years, having had worked in all kinds of different environments, I’ve come to many similar conclusions about how a working environment should be.

    My friends and I will often have this discussion due to them being unhappy with the way they are forced to work.

    For instance, a graphic designer I know is supposed to be Creative and design advertisements and other eye catching things. His boss has him sharing a single room with 2 other ‘graphic designers’.

    There are no windows in this office, white paint, nothing on the walls. Just 3 computers.

    The computers are all old and outdated so it takes forever for them to render their projects.

    Somehow he manages to go there every day and continue to bang out some A level work, but he is miserable all day and ends up ranting every night.

    That is really just a good example of a poor work environment. In the event that I can hire this guy, I am going to set him up with a massive window with a great view, overclocked computer, stereo system, and whatever else he might need to maximize his potential.

    Anyways, thanks for putting this up, I am going to keep it on file 🙂

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