Ricardo Semler on why idleness is good for business
With a culture where staff set their own salaries and take nap breaks, how did businessman Ricardo Semler ever become a millionaire?
- Ricardo Semler advocates idleness and his company, Semco, has been called the world’s most unusual workplace.
- The core of Semler’s philosophy is that employees must be challenged and given freedom.
- Ricardo Semler is speaking at CA ANZ's two-day Business Forum 2017 event, which is taking place in Sydney and Auckland in early June.
By Stephen Moss.
Photography by Corbino.
It’s not every day I get to meet a Brazilian millionaire businessman. But Ricardo Semler is my kind of capitalist. His company, Semco, has been called “the world’s most unusual workplace,” and he advocates idleness.
“The bad rap that idleness has is a real problem,” he says, “because idleness is really the time when you solve problems. People say idleness comes close to sloth, which is not true at all. It is from idleness that the best things I’ve ever done have come.”
Semco’s offices in Sao Paulo are fitted with hammocks. Semler’s book The Seven-Day Weekend, a follow-up to the bestseller Maverick! which he produced a decade ago, is a paean to inactivity. He dislikes email, likes long holidays in remote places, thinks you should be able to “buy” retirement time in your thirties and forties which you can work out in your sixties and seventies, and resists boundaries between work and pleasure.
At Semco, meetings are voluntary (if no one turns up, whatever is supposed to be under discussion must be a terrible idea), employees are allowed to set their own salaries and choose who their managers should be, there are no receptionists or PAs (who would want to do these support jobs?) and titles, business cards and all the rest of the paraphernalia of office life are frowned on. It sounds like anarchy, but Semler says it works. “Freedom is no easy thing. It doesn’t make life carefree – because it introduces difficult choices. It’s much easier for people to give in to a familiar system in which they don’t have to make any decisions.”
Semco used to be a nice, straightforward engineering company that made marine pumps. It was founded by Semler’s father, an Austrian exile who came to Brazil in 1952 via Argentina. But when the 24-year-old Ricardo took over in the early 1980s he set about transforming it.
The core of Semler’s philosophy is that employees must be challenged and given freedom. He wants every staff member to ask “why, why, why?”.
All Semco’s workplace freedoms are designed to encourage creative thinking. Semco’s staff work in small, autonomous units of about a dozen (the size, says Semler, of a close family group). They make the decisions, choose their leaders, set objectives and decide who they need and what they should be paid: someone who wants too much pay for what they are doing might be frozen out by the group.There is little bureaucratic control beyond financial accountability. Almost everything depends on peer pressure.
“We have a higher trust in human nature,” says Semler, “but we’re also convinced that peer control is fabulous as long as there is a common interest. If someone’s interested, the sort of corporate corruption you see elsewhere can never happen. It can only happen in places where people really don’t care, where they’re doing their nine-to-five thing and the chief executive knows he’s under the sword of Damocles so might as well make as much as he can. If he has that attitude, a lot of other people think the same way, so that system is doomed.”
Semler's next project is to develop a school in Sao Paulo based on the principles of freedom and flexibility.
“The schooling system seems very stupid, much as the business world is,” he says. “As with cars and airlines it needs someone from outside the business to rethink it from scratch. For instance, why do schoolchildren need a two-month summer holiday? That’s a hangover from agrarian societies when farm children were needed for harvesting.”
Ricardo Semler to speak at Business Forum 2017
Ricardo Semler will be speaking at the Chartered Accountants ANZ Business Forum 2017 in June, where the theme will be "purpose beyond profit". Business Forum 2017 will facilitate thought and discussion about a purpose beyond profit – an economy in which businesses thrive, communities flourish and nations prosper.
The two-day Chartered Accountants ANZ's Business Forum 2017 takes place in Sydney on June 5-6 at the newly refurbished International Convention Centre Sydney, and in Auckland on June 8-9 at SKYCITY Auckland Convention Centre. As well as Semler, the Business Forum 2017 speaker line-up includes Gus Balbontin, former executive director and chief technology officer for Lonely Planet; Abigail Forsyth, entrepreneur and founder of KeepCup; Zach Mercurio, organisational development consultant, author, and lecturer at Colorado State University; and (Auckland-only) Daniel Flynn, co-founder of thankyouwater.
To find out more about Business Forum 2017 or to book your seat at the event, visit the event website now.
Stephen Moss is a feature writer at The Guardian. Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd.
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