THE PROBLEM: Caribou, Maine, may be a great place to work, but it's not the easiest place from which to communicate THE PRACTICE: "Idea Labs," freewheeling group discussions, videotaped and archived on the corporate intranet THE PAYOFF: Far-flung workers are united, and things happen fast
You'd think that Glynn Willett, CEO of ATX Forms (#379), in Caribou, Maine, started piping live video of his company's Idea Labs onto the corporate intranet to save on airfare. Only 10 miles from the Canadian wildwood in the northeastern corner of potato country, and 1,700 miles from ATX's second office, in Fort Pierce, Fla., Caribou is remote even by a Mainer's standards. But Willett didn't start holding his technology-powered powwows -- weekly gab sessions in which groups of employees sound off about everything from product strategy to human nature -- because his company was out in the sticks. He created the Idea Labs to trounce poor communication, a problem that can undermine any business, anywhere.
"It doesn't matter whether [you're] in Caribou or New York," says Willett, who estimates that his $8.3-million, 150-person tax-software company spends $100,000 a year in salary and overhead to maintain its two-year-old intranet. (The intranet houses corporate human-resources information along with Idea Labs archives.) The rest of the equipment Willett needs to create the Idea Labs -- a video camera, two speakerphones, and some Web-meeting software -- costs roughly $2,000. "The Idea Lab [sprung] from wanting to have a small group of people and still have wide dissemination out to the culture," he says. "It's really for involvement."
Each employee attends at least one Idea Lab a year, either in person or by dialing in to a conference line and viewing the meeting online, says Bill Grady, ATX's chief cultural officer. There, staffers voice their opinions about, well, pretty much anything. In one session participants debated whether workers who refused to punch out for breaks were cheating the company. Willett concluded that such people merely had a different work style; he took them off the clock and put them on salary. In another Idea Lab session, Willett defended his decision to put ATX's resources into developing TaxSolver, heavy-duty corporate-tax software, rather than into a hot new Web-based product.
Glynn Willett created the Idea Labs to trounce poor communication.
Willett actually opted to go with TaxSolver after an earlier Idea Lab during which an employee argued that ATX, which initially didn't have enough programmers to develop the product, finally had the people it needed to push ahead. Willett agreed, and today the program, which sells for six figures, is poised to become ATX's most lucrative ware. Last year ATX's percentage of sales that were closed increased 12% after Willett ran with yet another Idea Lab suggestion to implement a phone system that routes product inquiries to the most effective salespeople.
While anyone would welcome those results, Grady and Willett say that the Idea Labs' most important role is making ATX a place where people like to work. Both men swear that the forum has something to do with the company's extraordinarily low turnover rate -- 0% for programmers; less than 5% for everyone else. The company game room probably doesn't hurt, either. Hey, in Caribou, every little bit helps.