Mike McKinnon had a lot going on. In fact, that’s an understatement. With a newborn at home, the developer was still spending long hours at Edmonton IT consultancy DevFacto Technologies Inc. Working on a big project that had run into some snags, the pressure was on. If the job was successful, the company would bankroll a trip for all its employees to Las Vegas. Instead of grumbling, the sleep-deprived McKinnon doubled down to make sure the job was done right. (When he finally did board the plane to Vegas, his bosses gave him and his wife a pair of tickets to catch a show as a further thank you.)
Sound like a dream employee? He is. And he’s one of many at DevFacto, which has made staff agency part of its DNA. It’s what co-founders Chris Izquierdo and David Cronin had in mind when they started the firm in 2007, and not just for the feel-good reasons you’d expect. For the pair—who’d previously toiled as software developers in rigidly bureaucratic firms—a self-motivated workforce would make for a less hierarchical, more efficient and more productive business. “If you get a bunch of driven people who are intrinsically motivated to do good work, you shouldn’t have to monitor them using managers,” says Cronin. “If you give them a purpose that’s larger than themselves, you can lead them to results.” So emerged their vision for DevFacto: no micromanaging, no needless policies, not even an HR department. Just a strong team of get ’er done types getting ’er done.
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This was relatively simple to do when DevFacto was just Cronin, Izqueirdo and a handful of programmers. Now that the company has 115 people on its payroll and satellite offices in Calgary and Regina, you’d think it’d be more complicated. Yet it’s not, and the DevFacto workforce is more engaged than ever: The firm has earned a spot on the 50 Best Small and Medium Employers (BSME) in Canada ranking for the third consecutive year, and its average annual employee retention rate is 98%. All thanks to some smart operational decisions that put people first.
Letting employees guide their own work is one of the best ways to, as Einar Westerlund puts it, “capture their hearts and minds”—a significant driver of engagement. “DevFacto does a lot of empowering of its people,” says Westerlund, who, as director of project development at Queen’s School of Business Centre for Business Venturing, works with BSME firms. “It gives them influence over assigned projects and allows them to map a lot of their own work direction.”
Not everyone is comfortable holding the reins, which is why the firm endeavors to hire only self-starters. Every job candidate has to go through a lengthy culture-fit interview with Cronin (or, at the satellite offices, the regional director). “I’m looking for evidence of intrinsic motivation, that thing that’s driving them to be better,” Cronin explains. And he isn’t the final arbiter: Employees—who know best what works in a flat organization—are regularly called for group interviews to assess candidates. Any staffer has the power to veto a hire who won’t fit in.
DevFacto promotes collective decision-making in other ways, too. Employees are responsible for keeping one another accountable to deadlines, budgets and other concerns. “People do need some pressure and attention put on them,” Cronin says. “ That can come from a boss walking around, or it can come from peers giving you feedback and challenging you,” says Cronin. He feels the latter approach is a more potent way to make people understand their own role in the overall health of the organization. (Cronin and Izquierdo deepen this understanding by sharing financial data with staff and by checking in via all-hands meetings and an internal social network.)
There are trade-offs to DevFacto’s approach; Cronin admits he probably spends more time than other C-suiters handling issues that might be solved with blanket policies or micromanagement. But he prefers to let employees lead the way and deal with the rare problems as they come. “Our approach is: Let’s find something that’s a win-win. We talk about it.”