August 20, 2013 · 11 min read

What makes a workplace a great place to work?

When Ghost Productions began as an experimental animation studio, we functioned more like a clubhouse than we did a company. This made for a really fun yet sometimes crazy working experience that had few policies. We attracted extremely talented artists and animators who were  attracted to the loose and de-corporatized environment we offered. It was this talent that was largely responsible for our success. We had suffered plenty during our startup phase and it was our achievement of success that finally made me realize I had a responsibility to the company, to our clients, and to our employees to ensure that Ghost became a more responsible company.

Ghost suddenly had policies, procedures, and for the very first time, it had rules, lots of them. Many of the employees who loved the freedom that Ghost offered became very unhappy, and some of them grew to despise me for making these changes. Though I made several concessions and attempts to do right by them, some had demands I could not facilitate and it became impossible for them to remain employed at Ghost. Even though several years have passed, some of them are still angry and are quite vocal about their angst to this very day. This was a difficult time for Ghost, and for me personally. I lament the way these relationships ended because many of these people were my friends as well as my employees. That, dear reader, can be a very difficult relationship to nurture and balance.

This led to what we painfully refer to as the Great Exodus of Ghost Productions. Many difficult lessons were learned in this time. We had become the best medical animation studio, but we were far from the best place to work. I knew that we couldn’t remain the best unless we were able to hire the best and keep the best happy and excited about our work, so I set forth on a quest to make Ghost Productions the best place to work in our industry.

I began an exhaustive research campaign about revolutionary companies and the inventive ways they encouraged, motivated, and incentivized their workforce. Props to Brian Thompson for turning me on to Drive, by Daniel H. Pink, a book that will totally mess with your head and everything you thought you knew about what motivates people to achieve excellence. Based on the concept of Motivation 3.0, an upgrade to the human operating system that theorizes that as long as 1.0 needs (survival, food, water, shelter, etc) are met, that the best motivators are those that free individuals to explore pursuits purely for intrinsic rewards. The book explains how bonuses (for the most part) may demotivate workers because bonuses and commissions turn intrinsically rewarding activities into extrinsically motivated tasks. It is time to remove the carrot and stick from the equation and find ways to inspire self-motivation instead of manager-motivated methods.

In classic Ghost-style, I radically gutted our employee manual and replaced it with something that I hoped would become the foundation for a company that would continue to produce excellence for our clients, innovate our industry, and provide a solid, functional, and rewarding place to work. I love this company and I care deeply for everyone who works here and everyone who hires us to work for them. With each new word I added to the employee manual, I felt the full effects of Motivation 3.0 driving me to complete the groundwork for the re-birth of our company.

Below you can read  a sampling of just a few of the nifty benefits we’ve made available for those who work at Ghost:

  • Health Benefits: I tasked our director of human resources to find us the best health and dental plan we could reasonably afford. I also ordered a comprehensive research project to find the best 401k retirement program a company of our size could offer our employees.
  • Health and Safety: Working at Ghost isn’t a dangerous job. It isn’t very likely that any of us are going to be run over by a forklift or have our arms torn off in a bailer but I knew we could do more. I retained the services of a licensed occupational therapist to evaluate everyone’s individual workspace to ensure we all had the best ergonomics possible. I also gave employees the option of switching to standing, treadmill, elliptical, and bicycle desks. Animators don’t get hurt due to unfortunate events with dangerous industrial machines, it is our chairs and sedentary lifestyles that destroy our health.
  • Vacation and PTO: I blew away our old method of tracking employee absences and designed a calculator that added a day of vacation time for each year worked. This allows loyal veterans of Ghost plenty of time to spend with their families and personal pursuits. Having a month of vacation time a year is a fantastic way to ensure that our most experienced employees have plenty of R&R.
  • Employee Profit Sharing: We’ve committed 15% of the company’s profits to reward our staff for helping make our company successful. We developed a novel way to distribute it by devoting half of the cash to employees based on how long they’ve been with the company and the other half based on their performance as scored by their peers. This makes for an interesting disbursement that adequately rewards each employee for being effective members of the team.
  • Ample Breaks: Taken directly from our employee manual:

“Take a break from work whenever you feel the urge.  Get lunch, take a walk, play Frisbee or whatever you wish.  Just inform others in your team when they can expect you back. Keeping you happy and healthy is our goal.  A microwave and refrigerator are provided for employees as are areas for sitting together at a table or relaxing on a couch.  Ghost Productions, Inc. will provide a variety of beverages for all guests, clients, subcontractors and employees, so help yourself.  Just clean up when you have finished.”

  • Flexible Core Hours: People are different and some people would rather start work early and leave before the commute gets too congested. Others simply are not morning people.  I’ve found it is ineffective to have people showing up at 8 AM if sleep-cycle is set for 10 AM. We still need a set of hours where we are all working together and creatively collaborating, so I set our core-hours from 10AM-4PM. This allows parents to get their kids to and from daycare and to take care of personal errands that need to be dealt with during standard business hours. I don’t want people working for Ghost punching a clock for the sake of a clock that needs a good thrashing. I don’t so much care when they do their work as long as they do it well and get it done on time.
  • Focus Days and Ghost Freedom Projects: To ensure that everyone has ample opportunity to challenge their skills, and be given time to pursue goals that benefitted the company as well as the desire of each employee, I made it possible for everyone to spend one day a week (when client workload allows) working on a project without distraction. Some choose to spend their focus days at home and work in their pajamas, while others just place a do not disturb sign on their doors letting everyone know that they are dedicating themselves to a Focus Day. They may also propose and set forth work on what we call Ghost Freedom Projects. These are projects that have no direct monetary benefit to the company but allow us to experiment with new techniques and research new potentials for the company.
  • 444 LAN Gaming: Every day at 4:44PM (a time chosen in honor of X-Ghostie and devastating Halo opponent, Jonathan Ecklund) we switch gears and start lobbing grenades at each other in our favorite first-person-shooter. Currently, we’re delivering high-speed lead therapy to each other in Call of Duty Modern Warfare but we’ve also spent time surviving a zombie apocalypse in Left 4 Dead, and exploring the expansive universe in Diablo.

We’re still far from perfect and not every idea we’ve tried has made everyone as happy as we’d hoped. Sometimes Focus Days get interrupted by project emergencies and sometimes we simply get too busy to squeeze in the LAN  gaming. Sure, occasionally we accidentally hire someone who’s going to abuse the heck out of the system and unreasonably take advantage of the freedoms we make available, but really, that has been extremely rare.

We take great care to include our employees when we need to solve problems and listen to them when they make suggestions and requests. We currently have the most talented, motivated, and dedicated team we’ve ever had so we must be doing something right. I very much look forward to showcasing the projects we’re working on right now because we’ve completely annihilated even my own extremely high expectations. The bar has been raised, substantially!

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