April 23, 2014

The Tech Company That's Hard-Coded to Put People First

Leigh Buchanan  /  Inc.com

"No two bad days in a row" is among the slogans shaping the culture at SPARC, which makes software for industries including green energy and human resources. CEO Eric Bowman knows he can't guarantee his people will never experience a bad patch. But his team's goal is to make employees feel happy and empowered. Homegrown technology helps: SPARC has created systems to enable everything from soliciting input for corporate planning to hiring for cultural fit to kicking off happy hour.

Lots of companies invite employees to weigh in on minor issues. But at this $21 million Charleston, South Carolina, company, everyone from the dewiest college recruit on up contributes to corporate goal setting. Team members use a homegrown app to set work and life goals for themselves, which they review with their team leaders. They are also asked to suggest goals for the company–and those are rolled up through the organization. Over two to four weeks in winter, CEO Bowman and his leadership team pour over all that feedback and incorporate the dominant themes into the company's annual plan. Among the goals originating with junior employees: "We become mobile in everything that we do." "The goal is to get as many people as possible to do the CEO's job," says Bowman. "It's about getting buy-in."

SPARC has also created an interview-management app employees use to generate questions for job candidates. The app is meant to support engineers and others without much experience interviewing people, but anyone can use it to make sure they cover all bases. "We hire for culture first, aptitude second, and resume third," says Bowman. So the app might pop out such culture-related interview questions as "What makes you weird?" and "How do you bring fun to an organization?" (SPARC makes the interview app and some of its other employee-engagement systems available as commercial products.)

Of course, interviews only tell you so much. Strong candidates also spend anywhere from a day to a week shadowing the people they'll be working with to ensure a good fit. "We want to see what it will be like to interact with them and them to see what it will be like to interact with us," says Bowman.

For all the technology, SPARC's top corporate value is "People first, first." Bowman knows his employees could work anywhere, so he is intent on keeping them with kindness. At SPARC, hours are flexible and employees are strongly encouraged to work from home at least one day a month. Unlimited time off kicks in after the first year. Until this year, when costs suddenly skyrocketed, there was no payroll deduction for employees' healthcare insurance. (Now there is a small monthly deduction.)

"SPARC demonstrates the best of organizational democracy," says Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu, a global network of organizations committed to democracy and freedom in the workplace. "They have found a way to make their people feel seen and valued. They've created an organization of leaders and demonstrated a real ethic of care."

That ethic of care is evident in–of all things–SPARC's approach to beer. Employees are welcome to tap the company kegs at 5 p.m. (and sometimes earlier). The care part is the arrangement SPARC made with a local cab company. Employees feeling a little wobbly just present their badges to the drivers, and SPARC will pick up the fare, no questions asked.

And how do employees know when it's OK to stop work and start hoisting beers? Well, wouldn't you know, they have an app for that.