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Robot Bosses, Unlimited Vacation, and Other Brilliant Management Ideas from Evernote's CEO

"We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity."


Evernote is a tool that allows users to save just about any kind of media on any kind of platform they use into a personal reference cloud. Any company making a tool that increases productivity so much must have a few good ideas about how to make the workplace more efficient, and the people behind Evernote are no exception. Phil Libin, the company's CEO, spoke to the New York Times this weekend about what makes his company tick. Here are some of his best ideas:

We got rid of phones in the office. Just on a whim, I thought that at every company we start, and this is the third one, we’re going to eliminate one piece of unnecessary technology. So this time it was phones. We thought, why do you really need a phone? If you have a phone at your desk, it’s just sitting there and you’re kind of encouraging people to talk on it. Everyone’s got a cellphone, and the company pays for the plans. There are phones in the conference room. We’re not a sales organization, so we’re not making a lot of calls, either. If you’re at your desk, you should be working. And that’s actually worked really well. I don’t think anyone misses phones. Even though it’s one big room, it’s actually fairly quiet because no one is sitting there talking at their desk. The culture very much is that if you want to talk, you go 10 or 20 feet in some direction to a quiet area.


I got this idea from a friend who served on a Trident nuclear submarine. He said that in order to be an officer on one of these subs, you have to know how to do everyone else’s job. Those skills are repeatedly trained and taught. And I remember thinking, “That’s really cool.” So we implemented officer training at Evernote. The program is voluntary. If you sign up, we will randomly assign you to any other meeting. So pretty much anytime I have a meeting with anyone, or anyone else has a meeting with anyone, very often there is somebody else in there from a totally different department who’s in officer training. They’re there to absorb what we’re talking about. They’re not just spectators. They ask questions; they talk. My assistant runs it, and she won’t schedule any individual for more than two extra meetings a week. We don’t want this consuming too much of anybody’s time.

We recently changed our vacation policy to give people unlimited vacation, so they can take as much time as they want, as long as they get their job done. If you want to take time off, talk to your team, but we’re still measuring you on the same thing, which is, did you accomplish something great? Frankly, we want to treat employees like adults, and we don’t want being in the office to seem like a punishment. We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing it this way, so we just stop doing it.

We have an Anybots robot with telepresence. When I’m not at the office, I can log in through a browser and I drive it around. It balances on two wheels, and it’s six feet tall. I see through its eyes and ears, and it’s got a screen, so people can see me. And so you can have casual conversations at someone’s desk through the robot. It’s got a laser pointer, so you can shoot lasers, which is just good design. You shouldn’t build a robot without a laser.

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A lot of these ideas may seem strange, but they result from a willingness to set aside convention and focus on the realities of the workplace. In a world of cell phones, desk phones are archaic for many employees—and Libin isn't stopping there; he is also trying to remove e-mail from his office equation. Cross-training employees makes sense for modern organizations that value hybrid workers that understand different facets of their business. Judging a worker by their productivity alone and letting them manage their own time is smarter than doling out vacation days, and builds morale to boot.

Libin does, however, lose me on the robots. No worker should be surprised by a six foot tall, laser-wielding robotic supervisor when they believe their boss is safely out of the office.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user mightyohm

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