What Your Employer Can Learn From Zappos (And These Other Companies) About Workplace Freedom

The 2015 WorldBlu list of freedom-centered companies is out. Is your employer on it?

What Your Employer Can Learn From Zappos (And These Other Companies) About Workplace Freedom
[Photo: Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Is your employer transparent? I mean, truly honest, about the financial health of the company and everything? Is there a fair, open dialogue, or do mandates always come from the top?


If answering these questions made you grumble, you might want to consider applying for a job at Zappos, DreamHost, or any of the other companies that just made the 2015 WorldBlu list of most freedom-centered workplaces in the world.

The annual list measures 10 “principles of organization democracy”–such as openness of dialogue, clarity of vision, worker evaluation, freedom of choice, accountability, and decentralization of power–to determine which companies offer the most freedom to their employees. Other companies on the 2015 list include Dutch nonprofit AIESEC International, design firm Boost, Denver-based health care company DaVita, Menlo Innovations, Podio, and WD-40, makers of the spray-on lubricant of the same name.

Zappos, known for its unconventional approaches to management and work structure, is praised on the list for its “corporate culture that values human relationships, and empowers each employee to think independently and share ideas.” The Amazon-owned company recently accelerated its shift toward a radical, manager-less Holocracy organizational structure by offering employees a buyout if they weren’t interested in sticking around for the experiment. (A reported 14% of the Zappos staff took the money and left.) If the 15,000-word Holocracy manifesto written by the movement’s founder, Brian Robertson, is any indication, employees at the online retailer are about to get even more free rein over their day-to-day jobs.

Zappos’s Holocracy system is still new, so obviously the WorldBlu list doesn’t fully take the new structure into account, but Zappos has been known for its laid-back, worker-empowering culture for some time. What does it consider? Decentralized distribution of authority, for one thing, as practiced at 2014 and 2015 winner The Alternative University, in Romania:

The Alternative University, practices the principle of Decentralization through equally sharing all the power, responsibilities and benefits across the team. All their full-time employees and part-time student representatives make decisions based on consensus. In 2015 they will be scaling this decision-making model so that all students will be involved in decisions that directly affect their education and the direction of the organization.

Freedom to discuss ideas and concerns is another important factor. Canadian education nonprofit LEARN was recognized for “regularly holding sessions where everyone is invited to put forward their thoughts and feelings.” Similarly, Haiti-based nonprofit Haiti Partners holds six-month, two-day-per-week sessions dedicated to fostering an open dialogue among members of the organization.

Software development firm Nearsoft was rewarded for its Holacratic methods, going to great lengths to decentralize its decision-making process, which is open to anyone who wants to solve a problem:


They proposed the concept of Leadership Teams (LT). An LT emerges whenever anybody in the organization sees a problem that needs to be solved. It can be anything from the brand of coffee available in the kitchen to more serious topics such as the annual bonus distribution method. Anyone can call for others to join in and work together on resolving the issue.

The entire 2015 WorldBlu list can be viewed here and it’s well worth a read. You might even want to share it with managers at your organization, who can mine it for ideas about how to modernize the company culture. Or if they’re not interested, it’s worth noting there are plenty of other companies out there that are a little more open.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.