How do you welcome new members to an organization that strives to be fully democratic, decentralized, is scattered around the world and is taking its first baby steps in chasing that ambition? Well, we warn them...

How and why do we do that?

Over the last month 4 new people have started in our organization, which gave us the opportunity to test out our onboarding process.
We work in a organization that operates differently then most others, we developed an onboarding process in which we share the ins and outs of how it is to work at our place and what possibilities you have to participate in the democratic processes we have.

What's different compared to hierarchical organizations?
First things first, at Polis we work in a self-managed manner, this means that we do not have a hierarchy and the teams are responsible for getting things done together. Instead of managers, we have someone who is responsible for the vision of Polis, he connects with the teams and consults with them to see if the goals that have been formulated can be reached or that the plans need to be adjusted.

The teams also have access to a coach, for now that's me. Working in a self-managing organization can be very exciting, you have way more influence on what is happening within the organization, what your goals are and how to reach them. However, working in a self-managing way can also be very hard. Because, if something doesn't go according to plan there is no one else to blame but yourself, there is no manager to blame, and blaming your colleagues is basically blaming yourself, because it is your responsibility to address potential problems before they can cause damage. The coach is there to help with exactly those things. My role is to facilitate group processes, mediate during conflicts and facilitate retrospective meetings.

Part of our philosophy when it comes to onboarding new employees is to introduce them to what they can expect, because to be honest, Polis is an ongoing experiment that provides lots of room for its members to explore the liberties of working in a self-managing organization, but it is also really dynamic. To 'warn' new members we send them a presentation which contains exactly that.

The last slide of the Onboarding presentation

The first meeting with the coach

If all schedules permit it, the first meeting with the coach is scheduled on the new member's first day. During that meeting they will be introduced to what we see as key aspects and practices of our organization.  

Polis is democratically governed
Every worker-owner of our organization has influence on the policies that we have, they can vote on policies that are being proposed, and they can propose their own policies. All our policies are gathered in our Constitution on Github. To make sure everyone within our organization feels empowered to participate in this democratic process we have included four components or processes to make member participation thrive:

  1. Easy-access channels for your voice to become part of the decision-making. (You can ask anything of anyone publicly or personally via Slack or during meetings)
  2. Wide availability to key information. (All information is available for everyone)
  3. Guarantees of free speech so it is safe to speak up.
  4. There are coaches available to help you be effectively influential

Working together in self-managed groups -- “teaming” -- requires that each individual actively participates. We believe that team members need each others’ differences & uniqueness, in order to accomplish all the group’s tasks: to plan work, solve unexpected problems, make key decisions, and periodically review the group’s progress. Teams who excel in that have proven to be more effective. If you want to know about this, have a look at the work of Amy Edmondson!

Inevitable conflicts
Whenever humans come together to accomplish something important, conflicts can arise. It’s natural, because each person has unique perspectives & perceptions. The best response, we feel, is to admit that a conflict exists, then open one’s mind to the potential benefits of resolving that conflict (“What can we learn from this?”), and then work in a friendly & respectful way to combine the relevant contributions of all persons involved.

To achieve this we use a well-tested 4-step procedure originally known as “Non-violent Communication”, which might better be described as non-provocative or non-triggering communication. It requires the person experiencing the conflict to go through the following steps when they want feel comfortable to address the conflict with their colleague:

  1. Step 1: OBSERVE --  (For example: “I notice that one person didn’t finish the work that our team needed from them yesterday.”)
  2. Step 2: FEEL --  (“I feel disappointed & frustrated, because of that”)
  3. Step 3: NEED --  (“I need to know if we can do something together, to make sure such delays occur less often in the future.”)   Step 4: Doable REQUEST --  (“Can you let us know ahead of time, if something suddenly might prevent you from delivering your portion on time?  And can we help you with that in some way perhaps?)

Rehumanizing work: Needs & Feelings
One of our ambitions is to rehumanize work. This means that there should be room to address and express needs & feelings. We know that people can, not only during conflict, benefit from clearly expressing their Needs and Feelings, however for most people it feels unnatural to do that in a working environment. Based on research and personal experience we know that there are several needs that are especially important for personal happiness when working in a self-managing context;

When such needs are not met, a variety of uncomfortable feelings may arise. And if it feels too uncomfortable to express those feelings at that moment, members have access to a Coach or Mentor who will help them navigate that. That person is also the one that introduces them to all of this.

To fulfil those needs, we have adopted certain practices. Because we work remote it is harder to feel and see how somebody is doing then in regular organizations. You don't have the informal chitchat you'll normally have at the water cooler in your office. Therefore it requires more effort to build understanding relationships. One of the practices we use to overcome that is using 'Check-ins' and 'Check-outs' for all of our meetings.
At the beginning of each meeting we take some time to 'Check-in', every person gets the time to share what they how they are feeling, what their intentions are for the meeting or answer any other questions as proposed by the facilitator. The intentions is to create more context and understanding, so that your colleagues know how you are doing. This helps them place things in context. So they know that you are grumpy  because you crashed your car, and not because of meeting with them.

The 'Check-out' takes place at the end of the meeting. Each person in the meeting gets a turn to share some observations, feedback, feedforward, how they feel now compared to the beginning (e.g. Tired at the beginning of the meeting, energized at the end), or suggestions for how to improve the meeting itself the next time. All of this is intended to provide a platform for creating understanding and sharing your experiences, so that you don't go out of a meeting feeling really disappointed or with the idea you couldn't share what you wanted to share.  

A different practice we have is focused on appreciation. Every 6 to 7 weeks we have a meeting with the whole organization, 'The Show & Tell'. That meeting is focused on sharing what you and your team have been working on in the last period and sharing your plans for the future. At the end of that meeting we do something called an 'Appreciation circle'. It is a really simple and powerful way to share what you appreciate in someone and share that in public. How it works;

  1. One person starts with sharing who they appreciate and why.
  2. The appreciated person can only respond with “Thank you”
  3. The appreciated person now shares his appreciation with someone else (They can’t choose the person who chose them)
  4. And this is repeated until time runs out or it comes to a natural end.
  5. If you have anything else you appreciated, but what you couldn't share during the meeting you can always do that at other moments or by sending a Slack message!

Welcome aboard!

Once all of this has been shared and the new employee better understand what they can expect and how they can co-create the future of our organization, we once again welcome them aboard Polis.