People over profits
“Everyone here says the favorite part of this job is the people they work with,” notes Greg Kozera, the company’s Vice President of Creative Design. Kozera describes a culture in which the exchange of ideas is very free, and in which the team rises and falls as one. His attitude toward hierarchies is, “chop the king’s head off.”
Kozera explains that while there is a hierarchy in place at ELM’s San Diego office--where the creative component of the company is located--as it applies to personnel decisions, for all intents and purposes, the atmosphere is completely democratic, placing personal power over positional power.
Growing the culture
Early in the company’s history (Kozera was the first person brought on board by the co-founders), the team’s democratic process occasionally took the form of outdoor yelling matches, which ended with hugs and solutions. While there’s less need to take a walk around the block to hash things out these days, Kozera makes it clear that team members are free to speak their minds.
One example came a few years ago, when employees felt their heavy workloads were threatening their work-life balances, and they openly expressed this to leadership. “At the end of the day,” Kozera says, “because we’re this empathetic group, they listened.”
Acknowledging the stress
The creative side of eLearning’s work, developing a wide variety of solutions to well-known companies is, by definition, stressful. Kozera says, “making things from scratch and coming up with creative solutions could be very stressful,” but ELM’s culture balances that through a non-hierarchical, trust-driven atmosphere. Both trust and responsibility are emphasized.
“It’s not like…we’re all singing ‘Kumbaya,’ says Kozera, emphasizing that candid communication can sometimes be rough. One comes away from the conversation feeling that the company would rather respect a colleague than appease or flatter one.
If one employee has an issue with another, he or she is obliged to talk to that person, rather than gossiping with a third party. Kozera says, “I’m a big proponent of vulnerability.” He explains, “if I have a problem with somebody, I go there hat in hand, and I’m just like ‘hey, listen…this is what I’m feeling’.”
Tell a story
Finding solutions rather than placing blame is a key component of the democratic nature of the team. Kozera says the process is to tell a story when there’s a problem—what went wrong and how can we fix it? It’s no wonder that, while employees have the option of working at home, they frequently opt to come into the office.
In a workplace with so little formality, it’s also no surprise the employees spend a lot of time together outside of work. And we’re not talking about drinks at the bar, but events like sand-castle-building tournaments and making crazy hats. Kozera sums up their gatherings as “like what you’d do at an eighth-grader’s birthday party.”
Appreciation is 🔑
Perhaps some of this camaraderie is fueled by a feeling among team members of being appreciated.
More from Jack: “Our vibe is gratitude,” says Jack Makhlouf, one of ELM’s founders. He and Kozera explain that the company chooses to direct its energies to higher performers rather than lower ones. “Managers go around fixing problems,” says Makhlouf. “We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to go around and encourage people in a positive way to be innovative on their own, and to feel safe doing that.”
Publicly praising good work is a big part of eLearning Mind’s culture. They do so linking communication software Slack with the appreciate tool Disco, the latter of which Kozera emphatically proclaims he “love”s. He uses it to call out the good efforts of his colleagues, and he says it’s important to be as specific as possible. Otherwise, he says, the praise will become “just noise.”
Kozera brings everything back to the larger need to create an enjoyable workplace. This isn’t done just to increase productivity but to uphold everyone’s humanity.
Referring to a culture in which too many companies put profit before people, Kozera says, “the ship is going to sink if we don’t course-correct this quickly, and actually, truly care.”
It’s impossible to not be convinced the eLearning Mind actually, truly cares.
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