Copenhagen-based startup Abzu, whose ambition is to democratise General Artificial Intelligence, has no bosses and everyone chooses their own salary. Their unique approach means that there is no formal hierarchy, every employee has a stake in the company, and they decide for themselves what their salaries should be. Their inspiration comes from the Netherlands, where the model has achieved great success. Jonas Wilstrup and Jonas Nygreen, both employees at Abzu, speak about their work culture.
“At Abzu, we believe in self-management”, says Jonas Wilstrup, whose official title is COO, but it is almost only for decorative purpose.
Abzu is a small start-up with offices in Copenhagen and Barcelona, which has been developing a new generation of Artificial Intelligence over the last two years and currently has 16 employees.
“I’d like to believe that Abzu is a pioneer in both, our Artificial Intelligence technology and our self-management culture. We believe that our colleagues can become the best version of themselves and do an even better job when given full autonomy and trust. We have confidence in people’s own ability to make decisions and design their own work. There is no framework for working hours or working methods, and all employees are responsible for performing their work in exactly the way they want”, added Jonas Wilstrup.
If employees want to go home early and pick up kids every day and continue work in the evening when the kids are in bed, they can do that. If they want to work long hours three days per week and the rest of the week off, they can also choose to do that. On top of that, all company information is available to everyone. The budget is regularly reviewed with the employees, and all employment contracts are public so everyone knows how much everyone earns.
“I know it sounds crazy, but it works. […] The idea of managing your employees and framing their work to make sure they do what they were hired to do is a misconception. […] I believe that we will see more workplaces make the work more flexible for employees in the future”, said Jonas Nygreen.
Although Abzu has no formal bosses, everyone is responsible for a specific area. For example, Jonas Wilstrup is responsible for the finances, so he presents the budget to the others, and his colleagues turn to him if they have any finance-related questions. There is an unspoken rule that people must ask at least one other colleague every time they have to make a decision that can affect the company – for example, if something big needs to be purchased or someone needs to be hired.
“It is extremely important to ask for your colleagues’ opinions for self-management to work. However, it does not need to be a consensus. An employee has the full right to make a decision, luckily, most people take their colleagues’ advice into consideration”, says Jonas Wilstrup.
The same principle is followed when an employee decides to raise their salary. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves how much they want to be paid. Many people wonder if employees ever give themselves very high salaries since they can decide for themselves. However, Jonas Nygreen says that no one would do that, as all records are in public access. Currently, all employees earn anywhere between 30,000 DKK and 50,000 DKK per month. Employees with children typically receive a bit more than those who do not have a family to support, and this practice is accepted.
Jonas Nygreen says that this structure is crucial to attract highly-skilled people who come from very highly-paid jobs. He himself, comes from a high position at a consulting firm. There was nothing wrong with the workplace, but he was looking to get away from the traditional organizational structure that became meaningless to him.
“It is not easy for everyone, because there isn’t a boss who gives you a list of tasks that need to be accomplished next week. We’ve had a couple of colleagues who said it was too difficult. But I believe that’s because we are so used to working under fixed conditions”, says Jonas Nygreen.
The Abzu framework was inspired by a Dutch company which re-invented home care and that has grown to over 14 000 employees in a record time. In this company, there are no middle managers, and nurses and home helpers are organized into autonomous groups of 10-12 employees with over 1 000 teams. Each team manages and distributes the workload themselves and handles their own economy according to pre-established guidelines. Studies reveal that the method makes both the elderly and the sick people whom they help, happier and more secure, and that employees are more satisfied with their work.
“Our ambition, of course, is to grow without compromising on our company culture. Hopefully, in the future when the company has 100 employees, we will continue to work the same way; however, when this happens, we will evolve into smaller self-managing teams, where each team is responsible for a specific area of the company”, says Jonas Wilstrup, talking about Abzu’s upcoming plans.