The Secret Sauce To Semco’s Success

Most people, working in conventionally managed organizations, tend to ignore the imbalances in their personal and professional lives until the moment something goes wrong. It’s a highly reactionary attitude that leads to high-strung situations, deep regrets and a drained return to the workforce. Research invariably shows that people who are unable to dedicate enough time for their personal lives tend to be employees who are physically present, yet mentally absent. And it works both ways: People who work in high stress environments often find all that negativity reflecting on their personal lives, disrupting their familial and social relationships.


Is It Important If It Isn’t Measurable?

Which explains why quality of life is often thought of as an elusive ideal that people and organizations are constantly striving towards. But what is it really? Is it the superficial motifs, such as gaming stations, sleeping pods and beer kegs at work, that pop culture has embraced with such ferocity? Or, is it the deep-rooted belief that your company and colleagues will be empathetic when your personal life throws a curveball at you?

It all boils down to treating others the same way you’d like to be treated in a given situation. It requires flexibility, empathy, trust and commitment to understand and accept that sometimes people need to take some time off or switch to a different routine. And that quality of life isn’t a measurable metric but an ephemeral state of mind, which is sometimes derived out of actions that have no definitive agenda or profit making capacity.

Over the years, Semco has amassed multiple anecdotes where employees prioritized the quality of their lives, without compromising the quality of their work. Here are four such instances.

Birthday Parties Are Never A Secret

One day, Paulo Ogeia, from Sales department came in very early to work because it was his son’s birthday and he had to leave early to make arrangements for the party they were throwing to mark the occasion. And Paulo did just that because he knew it was completely accepted at Semco and that there was no need for him to lie saying he had a doctor appointment or to sneak out when no one was looking.

Semco employees know that there’s no need for such pretence and that everyone expects you will compensate for the time off at another moment. If you’ve already delivered all that was expected, then even better for you can do whatever you want with your time. In that sense, quality of life was highly valued at Semco: The management understood that if employees managed to find fulfillment in their personal lives, without jeopardizing their professional commitments, their engagement at work would be much more sustainable.

Work Happens When You Feel Most Productive

There was an engineer at Semco who was generally regarded as a genius who could compute extremely complicated mechanical calculations with ease. But he was someone who preferred to work late nights, which wasn’t the regular shift timing for someone in his position. In any other company, his request to change his work hours would have been immediately rejected and the management would have forced him to continue with the status quo. However, Semco understood that doing so would make them lose his more inspired and productive moments as an employee and the company decided that was more important than any policy on work timings for engineers.

So they allowed him to choose his own work timings and he began coming in at midday and working until late into the night. The arrangement worked out for everyone, in the end, because they aligned his knew schedules with the people who might be affected by the change. Though there were some initial tensions, they eventually faded away when people understood the reason behind his odd hours. The management also helped subside the tensions by assuring everyone that they too could change their work schedules as long as they could justify it.

Of course, it did prove to be quite challenging initially when people began setting their own work schedules and there was no standard office hours. For a lot of people who came in from traditional backgrounds and mindsets, it was tough to accept or understand. But overtime, people began understanding the new dynamics of how things worked at Semco and discovered that it was quite difficult to go back to their original ways of working. A lot of people who quit Semco during this transition, returned to the company once they found out that they couldn’t go back to working out of little cages and mindless rules.

Quality Of Life Is Better Than Money

At one point, the factory employees at Semco decided amongst themselves to repurpose materials that would have been otherwise thrown into recycling or the garbage. They approached the management with a plan to create a lounge-like space for themselves using materials like wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other recycling materials. They planned to use the proposed space to unwind during factory hours, to have a drink or a barbeque at work. They also planned to beautify empty spaces around the factory and the garden in order to improve their work environment.

Superficially, the project wouldn’t bring any benefit or savings to the company. Neither was it a proposition to optimize the chain of production or any other business practice for that matter. Instead, it was one that solely meant to improve the workers’ quality of life at work and Semco felt that it needed to be valued and encouraged. So the factory workers went ahead and created a cool, colourful lounge space with little tables and chairs where they could take a break and relax.

With Great Freedom Comes Great Responsibility

One Friday, it was Paulo Ogeia’s daughter’s birthday and they were throwing a party for her friends at 6PM that evening. Since Paulo needed to leave work at 4PM, to make arrangements for the party, he arrived early at work in order to finalize an important report that had to be processed that evening. It was for an important client order that needed to be sent out on the following Monday. But, he discovered that there was a problem with the internal system that morning and that even after lunch the problem couldn’t be fixed. That meant he couldn’t finalize the report before he left at 4PM.

In a traditional company, Paulo would have been expected to stay back until the system could be fixed and leave only after the report was finalized. But that wasn’t the case in Semco. Paulo called the department that would be processing the report at 7PM that evening and explained to them that he had to leave early that day to organize his daughter’s party. But, he also promised to log into the system later that night to finalize the report and send it in as soon as possible. So the person on the other end said, “Okay, instead of processing the report tonight, I will do it tomorrow at 7 AM but make sure that I have all the required information before that time.”

Ogeia agreed and left early to organize his daughter’s birthday party as planned. After he wrapped up the party at around midnight, he took an hour-long nap and logged into the system at around 1 AM. After working on the report for a couple of hours, he was able to send it in via email at around 3AM and everything was fine.

This kind of flexibility, which allows people to fulfill their personal duties, is not just about the freedom. It’s a reflection of the commitment that Ogeia had to wake up at 1AM on a Saturday morning to take care of business that was originally stalled due to things beyond his control. It’s also something that takes a lot of collaboration between different teams and people who work and empathize with each other to make such flexibility possible. At Semco, when someone asks someone for flexibility from another person or department, it’s offered without hesitation because they know that when it’s their turn someday, the same flexibility will be available to them as well.

The Secret Sauce? Happy, Balanced Employees

It may be true that the main driver in a business is its capacity to make profits - the more the merrier - but such a traditional and narrow definition of a business’ purpose is lopsided and unsustainable in a rapidly evolving marketplace. Instead, organizations are microcosms of society, where people interact with each other, expending a great deal of their energy and resources to influence outcomes that shape the lives of all stakeholders.

So, businesses might have a profit motive, but the way they go about acquiring those profits is a huge differentiator. Historically, companies that refrained from treating their people as afterthoughts are the ones that grew into enduring and sustainable organizations. In the end, employees who feel like they are the core purpose of their company, and not just clogs in a large machine, hold the key to enduring corporate success.  

Share this article on social media