Overstock Founder: To Innovate, Get Employees To Participate

Overstock Founder: To Innovate, Get Employees To Participate
Work

Patrick M. Byrne, founder of Overstock, discusses how the future of the workplace is really about the future of workers, fostering the kind of collaboration that comes from informal day-to-day connections creativity and camaraderie.

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 1 february 2017

By 2014, Overstock had grown to 1,500 employees, and was approaching $2 billion per year in revenue. As CEO, I was proud of what my colleagues had built. But due to space constraints in our headquarters in Sandy, Utah, we increasingly had to relocate teams and even whole departments to offices built inside our warehouse, 18 miles away on the west side of Salt Lake City.

Overstock is an internet retailer, so we enjoy digital contact with tens of millions of customers all over the world. But as strong as we were in handling digital contact, our face-to-face contact with each other was suffering under these physical constraints. I knew in order to have a successful workplace, we needed a physical space to foster the kind of collaboration that comes from informal day-to-day connections and the creativity and camaraderie that engenders.

We needed a home base into which we could consolidate, and not one that was just bigger, but one whose design recognized that the future of the workplace is really about the future of workers.

Everybody is a star

Whenever possible, I try to distance myself from the pointy-haired boss in the “Dilbert” cartoons, issuing edicts from his corner office to colleagues who are on the knowledge frontier; making it harder rather than easier for them to do their jobs.

Fortunately, Overstock already had many precedents for employee-wide participation in place. On our intranet, OLife, there’s an innovation tab that contains a number of collaboration tools. For example, Idea Lab lets anyone suggest a way to improve the business. Ideas are subjected to popular vote and the stronger ones float to the top to be acted upon. We also have a Social Choice voting tool that allows colleagues to rank various alternatives facing the company, ranging from compensation decisions to strategic choices we must make. Odd as it may sound, my role as CEO now often comes down to defining choices that I then leave to popular vote among my colleagues.

We had seen great success in empowering our employees to voice their opinions, speak their mind, and have influence on their work environment. Therefore, when it came time to design the new corporate campus, it was natural for us to seek broad input from our workers. Through surveys and a weekly scrum among a dedicated team, we were able to draw on the collective wisdom of 1,500 people concerning what they were seeking, and what they disliked about other office environments in which they had worked.

We had first conceived of the idea of making a round building in 2010, when considering the possibility of building a satellite location in Park City. We thought that an O-shaped building would lend itself to collaborative spaces, and would tie-in with our “O” brand.

We had never gone through with that building, until 2013 when we sent Meghan Tuohig – now vice president of Campus Care and Design – to study design. She came back with many great ideas, the first of which was to turn the O-shape into a hub-and-spoke design. This layout would create an inner courtyard, along with a nucleus – a place for employees to meet up, eat, or engage in a friendly game of ping pong — connected to the outer rim via hallways. She explored a three-spoke design, a four-spoke design, and almost as a joke (she says), a design configured like a peace sign. We adopted the peace sign.

Building a workplace for everyone

To build a workplace for both your current and future workers, you need to understand the real needs of each employee and department. In the process of planning this new campus, we listened to our employees, and their voices and ideas echo throughout the design of the new building.

One concern that we continued to hear repeatedly from employees was around commuting to and from the office. Knowing this, we wanted to make their daily commute as easy as possible. To site the building, we plotted where employees lived and chose a location that minimized the sum of their commutes, which also had easy access to great public transportation (the TRAX light rail station is about 40 yards from our south entrance).

The new campus is environmentally as well as emotionally sustainable. After reading various studies which have found natural light is proven to alter moods and boost employee health, I knew it was crucial that not only Overstock’s campus, but all future workplaces make their employees’ health and happiness a priority. We chose to install View Dynamic Glass windows, which automatically adjust their tint based on the time of the day, the weather, and employees’ preferences, eliminating the need for window shades. Although it was one of our biggest investments for the building, it was worth it to me to make sure our employees were happier and healthy, ultimately resulting in both business and personnel benefits.

Based on what we were hearing from employees, we learned amenities that encouraged a healthy lifestyle – like an on-campus greenhouse that provides fresh produce, and a gym – were some of their top priorities in a workplace. Additionally, it soon became clear that the environment was also a concern our employees were voicing. They wanted to work for a company that shared their same values. That’s why we looked for ways to cut back on energy. For example, our collocation facility (“server farm”) produces large amounts of waste that are then taken into a system which will heat the building nine months out of the year, and cool it three months out of the year.

These innovations in no way displaced welcome traditions. From wide staircases which intersect on large landings set up like living rooms, to barbecue stations and fire pits within our courtyard and a koi pond and greenhouse on the outside campus, we have maximized our colleagues’ social surface area so as to create a fecund environment for collaboration.

Part of something more

In September, we moved into our home, Peace Coliseum. From the ground, passersby see a corporate glass-steel-and-concrete structure that alludes to The Roman Coliseum.  From the air, it appears a giant peace sign.

Every square inch of the new headquarters was built with our workers in mind, from its proximity to a light rail station and interstate access, to its open workspace layout, “smart glass” windows, dining and exercise options. Every current and future employee is a part of Peace Coliseum.

An employee-designed headquarters reflects the voices and knowledge of your current and future workforce. Every feature and every detail make a difference and can drive productivity and happiness, and will result in greater ideas and even more innovation.

From the outside, digital-based businesses only seem to run on silicon and electricity; like all enterprises, however, they are in fact powered by skilled, enthusiastic people pulling in the same direction. Through the collective process of building our home base together, our colleagues at Overstock know they matter, and were able to build their dream home for the future.

In late 1999, Patrick M. Byrne launched Overstock.com.  In 2015, Overstock.com had revenues of $1.7 billion and its sixth out of seven straight years of profitability. Forbes magazine named Overstock.com the No. 9 Best Company to Work for in the Country, and Byrne the CEO with the highest employee approval rating (92%) in 2010.  The following year, Ernst & Young gave Byrne its National Entrepreneur of the Year Award and in 2014, 

By 2014, Overstock had grown to 1,500 employees, and was approaching $2 billion per year in revenue. As CEO, I was proud of what my colleagues had built. But due to space constraints in our headquarters in Sandy, Utah, we increasingly had to relocate teams and even whole departments to offices built inside our warehouse, 18 miles away on the west side of Salt Lake City.

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