10 Things Learned from Valve’s Employee Handbook

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Valve Software‘s Handbook for New Employees has been posted to the web, and it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read, revealing Valve to be a place with no managers, where power is shared equally by every employee. Valve is truly a one-of-a-kind working environment. You’ve never seen anything like this…

The Handbook for New Employees sheds light on the inner workings of Valve, showing it to have an almost experimental kind of corporate structure, where everyone is equal and has the freedom to work on whatever they want. Here are ten things the document reveals about Valve. (The illustrations in this article were captured straight out of the Handbook.

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1) Valve is “flat.” There are no managers at Valve, and nobody reports to anyone else. There is no boss. It even says quite blatantly in the Handbook that “you can just say no” to CEO Gabe Newell himself, if you believe you’re right. If you’ve been hired by Valve, then you’re considered to have exceptional skills and collaboration capabilities, making you worthy of this kind of freedom and responsibility. From the Handbook:

This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products… There’s no red tape stopping you from figuring out for yourself what our customers want, and then giving it to them.

2) Employees create their own assignments, and lobby other employees for help in making it happen. This creates an environment where “there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way.” The projects that have value are the ones that “staff up easily.” (Those that are unsuccessful fall by the wayside, I guess.) Personal interests dictate what project an employee chooses, although staffers are also encouraged to consider the value, impact, benefit, and the big picture when making a project selection. When two or more employees gather to work on a single project, they become a “Cabal,” Valve’s term for a project group. Everything about this group is fluid and flexible. (I wonder if this is why Half-Life 3 hasn’t happened yet: because not enough employees are interested in making it.) Valve’s hope is to foster managerial skills in every employee. The freedom they offer is meant to come with a strong sense of personal responsibility. They want all of their staff members to be able to make command-level decisions, with intelligence, maturity, and confidence.

Screen Shot 2012 04 23 at 5.20.49 PM 470x509 10 Things Learned from Valves Employee Handbook3) Every desk has wheels, and employees are encouraged to move them. A lot. Say goodbye to offices and cubicles. Valve is a completely open environment, where staffers move from one project group to the next as they wish, and take their desk with them. There’s even a set of schematics in the Handbook that shows how to do this.

You’ll notice people moving frequently; often whole teams will move their desks to be closer to each other. There is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you’d help or be helped by most.

But how do they know where to find each other if they have no set offices? An internal server function is used to detect where in the building an employee plugs in their computer, so others can find them.

4) Valve’s structure is built around encouraging employees to be as social as possible. Absolutely everything in the Handbook boils down to social interaction. One gets the impression that the sense of community at Valve must be second to none. “The chair next to anyone’s desk is always open, so plant yourself in it often,” says the Handbook. Valve is aware that this unique environment can foster mostly reactive actions instead of proactive ones, so they ask employees to guard against that.

5) There are no committees, no closed-doors meetings, and no focus groups. Everyone is invited to participate in any discussion where they feel they have something to contribute. There’s no power group of execs making all of the decisions. If you want to work on a project, you just strike up a conversation with the people who are already working on it, and find out if you can offer anything valuable to them. “It’s your job to insert yourself wherever you think you should be,” according to the Handbook.

6) There is no “crunch time.” Employees are discouraged from working overtime (unless they’re on a super tight deadline), because Valve sees working overtime for extended periods as indicative of “a fundamental failure in planning or communication.”

 

7) There are major perks. Every Friday, free massages are offered. The Handbook also leads one to believe that there are on-site laundry services offered to employees, as well as a gym for working out. There’s also an annual “company vacation” to some exotic locale, all expenses paid. (Don’t people go on vacation to get away from everyone and everything? I get that Valve uses these trips to build camraderie, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend my time off with the three hundred people I work with.)

8) Employees are expected to fail. Mistakes are not only expected, they’re everything but encouraged.

Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company — we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn.

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9) There are no professional reviews by supervisors (because there are no supervisors). Instead, Valve uses a system of anonymous peer reviews, conducted once a year, where employees give their opinion of everyone they work with. Every Cabal is asked to rank the people they work with. No one ranks themselves. Results are delivered anonymously, and it’s up to the individual to decide what to do with the information. One concrete change that comes out of peer reviews is compensation adjustments. Valve goes out of its way to pay its people what they deserve, according to “who’s providing the most value at the company.”

10) It’s okay to work from home, when necessary. A tongue-in-cheek glossary in the back of the book files “what to do if a single snowflake falls from the sky” under WFH.

As I said above, the Handbook for New Employees is an utterly fascinating read if you’re interested in how one of video gaming’s most successful, respected, and secretive companies operates. If you’re into that sort of thing. Download it here.

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