The Valve Employee Handbook

Those of you who are tech-savvy have probably heard of Valve or their products. They’re behind hit games such as Half-Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead, and the distribution platform Steam. Their Handbook for New Employees was published online recently and has some really interesting ideas in it:

  • Valve has a totally flat structure – there are no bosses and all performance management is done through peer review. They even have their own framework of skills so that employees can measure their contribution.
  • Valve makes a point of hiring ‘T-shaped’ people who have a broad range of experinces as well as expertise in one specific area. These people are then able to work on multiple projects in multiple roles.
  • Risk is encouraged. Employees vote with their feet and if they like the look of a project, then they actually move their desk (after unplugging their computer) and go and work on it. Similarly employees are free to work on their own ideas and encourage others to join them. If a risky project doesn’t work out, then the team disbands and its members join other projects without the threat of being fired as even failed projects can add value to final products.
  • They really look after their employees – the office has espresso machines, dry-cleaning, gyms and saunas, and every member of staff takes their family on the free company holiday every year. All of these experiences make the employees feel valued and spark their creativity, and they take overtime and stress as a sign that a project isn’t working in the right way rather than as a last-minute method to get a project done.

It sounds totally chaotic, and the handbook admits that the model has limitations when it comes to inducting new staff and long-term planning, but you can’t argue with Valve’s creativity or success; they’ve sold millions of games, won countless industry awards and their profitability per employee is higher than Microsoft, Google and Apple.

It's a great guide to the company, and there are some elements here that are common with Studio Schools, from focussed pastoral care to self-assessment and team-work. Perhaps Studio School students could work on something similar to welcome the next wave in September 2013. It would also be fascinating to see if any of these ideas would work in a Studio School, but it would take some really brave coaches and students to try them out!

John Lean - 2nd October 2012