The top 10 most awesome things from Valve’s employee handbook

I recently had a chance to read the employee handbook from video game company Valve and it’s the single most inspiring such document I have ever seen.

I play some video games myself (the Bioshock and Dead Space franchises are my favorites), but if you don’t partake you may never have heard of Valve so here’s the skinny from Wikipedia:

Valve Corporation is an American video game development and digital distribution company based in Bellevue, Washington, United States. Founded in 1996 by former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, Valve became famous from its critically acclaimed Half-Life series. It is also well known for its social-distribution network Steam; and for developing the Source engine.

Valve is privately owned so few financial figures are known but they have 300 employees and Forbes estimates the company’s worth at $3 billion.

Their employee handbook was recently released on the web and it explains how they’ve become so successful. Here are the top 10 most awesome things from the document.

1: Valve has no hierarchy

Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.

But when youíre an entertainment company thatís spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most†intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what theyíre told obliterates†99 percent of their value.

Thatís why Valve is flat. Itís our shorthand way of saying that we donít have any management, and nobody ďreports†toĒ anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isnít your manager.

How cool is that?

2: Pick your projects

Weíve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100.

Heh :o) Screw Google and their “20% time to work on your own projects.” Valve turned that dial to 11!

3: Don’t forget the long term

Because we all are responsible for prioritizing our own work, and because we are conscientious and anxious to be valuable, as individuals we tend to gravitate toward projects that have a high, measurable, and predictable return for†the company.

This sounds like a good thing, and it often is, but it has some downsides that are worth keeping in mind. Specifically, if weíre not careful, these traits can cause us to race back and forth between short-term opportunities and threats, being responsive rather than proactive.

So our lack of a traditional structure comes with an important responsibility. Itís up to all of us to spend effort†focusing on what we think the long-term goals of the company should be.

In many, many workplaces where employees are unhappy and frustrated because their workdays are entirely taken up with putting out one fire and then the next, leaving no time for long-term planning of any kind. Valve try not to fall into that trap.

4: Don’t stress over the things you don’t do

Itís natural in this kind of environment to constantly feel like youíre failing because for every one task you decide to work on, there will be dozens that arenít getting your attention. Trust us, this is normal. Nobody expects you to devote time to every opportunity that comes your way. Instead, we want you to learn how to choose the most important work to do.

At most workplaces there is a huge and unrelenting focus on the things employees haven’t done. Almost every meeting, email and phone call are intended to remind people of the next deadline and how far away they are from reaching it. Valve try to take the pressure of employees so they don’t stress over the things they don’t do.

5: We test ourselves

…rather than simply trusting each other to just be smart, we also constantly test our own decisions

Yes. Don’t believe your own hype. Test your decisions and adjust as needed.

6: Overwork is bad

While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.

This is a brilliant slap in the face to all members of The Cult of Overwork, ie. everyone who believes that the key to succes is simply to work more hours.

7: Enjoy yourself

Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stumptown-roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, donít freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use.

And donít worry that somebodyís going to judge you for taking advantage of itórelax! And if you stop on the way†back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, itís not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com startup.

If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe somethingís wrong. Definitely panic if thereís caviar.

In short, you should feel good during your work day.

8: You’re free to screw up

Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake.

Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company ó we couldnít expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors.

Yes! I cannot stress enough, how important it is to let employees make mistakes.

In fact, we should celebrate mistakes at work.

9: It’s not about growth

We do not have a growth goal. We intend to continue hiring the best people as fast as we can, and to continue scaling up our business as fast as we can, given our existing staff. Fortunately, we donít have to make growth decisions based on any external pressures ó only our own business goals. And weíre always free to temper those goals with the long-term vision for our success as a company. Ultimately, we win by keeping the hiring bar very high.

Yes! Way too many businesses are slaves to growth goals that are arbitrary, unrealistic and ultimately meaningless.

As Ricardo Semler put it:
There is no correlation between growth and ultimate success. For a while growth seems very glamorous, but the sustainability of growth is so delicate that many of the mid-sized companies which just stayed where they were doing the same thing are much better off today than the ones that went crazy and came back to nothing. There are too many automobile plants, too many airplanes. Who is viable in the airline business?

10: Hiring

Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. Itís more important than breathing.

So when youíre working on hiring … everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

Again, this is brilliant. Nothing undermines a strong positive company culture faster than hiring people who don’t fit in.

In short, this is a fantastic document and one of the coolest things about it is that it’s maintained by the Valve employees themselves, who are free to edit it on their intranet.

You can find the whole Valve handbook here – read it, read it, read it :o)

Your take

What do you think of these 10 points? How does this document compare to your workplace’s employee handbook? Is there anything in your employee handbook that inspires you?

7 thoughts on “The top 10 most awesome things from Valve’s employee handbook”

  1. Valve is one of the best and most inspiring game companies out there. I’m so glad you shed more light on this Alex, so that more people know about how to run an amazing company like this one. I’ve been in the beta test phase of Valves newest game (Dota 2) since last August, and the love this company has for its customers and what it does is absolutely astounding. Valve has even sponsored a professional level video game tournament and put up $2,000,000 in prize support as well as brought players from all over the world FOR A GAME THAT ISN’T EVEN OUT YET! Valve truly works for the love of the game, and inspires many other people to do so. Fans of Valve games will tell you that when you buy a Valve game, you don’t get just a game, you become part of a community.

    If anyone at all is interested in checking out one of their games to see the kind of quality work a company like this creates, may I recommend the critically acclaimed: Portal. It’s an extremely creative puzzle solving game that’s insanely fun, a little quirky, and just the right bit challenging. Since it’s an older title, you can pick it up on Steam fairly inexpensively.

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  3. Alexander, with you asking us what our take is and what we think of these points, I might be getting worried that you don’t know your readers very well. But I’m not.

    What I think? I absolutely love it what valve is doing. I had never heard of them before, but after reading this, I love it. I wish all companies would have this mentality. Something tells me that this company is probably profitable, not just because of the industry, but also because people love working here and want to make sure the company stays in business.

  4. How difficult is it to find the right personnel to staff this environment who will truly flourish? It may sound appealing, but many have been structured to behave within a certain set of guidelines and may ultimately have difficulty adjusting when the rubber meets the road.

  5. Gerard, while the numbers aren’t public, because the company isn’t; I can assure you Valve is profitable. I have read that the company has one of the highest profits per employee in the entire video game industry. The estimate I saw was $1.5 million per employee.

    Adam, if you’re interested in hiring, the handbook goes a little more in depth. Getting a job at Valve is no easy feat. As far as hiring individuals that flourish, Valve tends to hire people that are already doing what Valve does. Then the company supplies the resources for these people to continue there work and make it better. There’s a story in the manual about Gabe (known as GabeN by the community ) hiring a team of developers on the spot after seeing their work. I believe it was the team that created Portal if memory serves me correctly.

  6. @Dawn: I’m not sure what games you’re referring to. Valve’s games are hardly more violent than anyone else’s – often less so, actually. And I don’t know of any games where “betray and kill your friends” is a thing. In games, you’re my teammate or my enemy, but not both. In games where you compete against other players and try to “kill” them, everyone plays with the expectation that they will frequently get killed. It’s part of the fun. Some game modes are team-based and some are free-for-all, but you always have the option to play what you enjoy and avoid what you don’t.

  7. @Dawn: Scientists proved that there are no relations between virtual killing and the real one, I mean, it’s not true that children who play violent games are going to become murderers. Research says children from the age of 2 can comprehend what is game and what is reality.

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