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Flat may very well be the future “shape” of our industry. It already is at Chicago-based digital agency Punchkick Interactive, where there is no hierarchy, no bosses, and employees choose their own job titles.
According to Punchkick co-founder Zak Dabbas, “the spirit of flat” is in his blood.
“As kids, my sister and I didn’t have curfews—instead, we shared who our friends were and what our plans were, agreeing on an appropriate time to be back at home,” Dabbas told CMO.com. “We were never the kids who lived under a feeling of authoritarian rule. I think it taught me that you can treat those you work alongside with all the respect in the world and trust them to make incredibly smart decisions from a place of empathy, not an org chart.”
In The Beginning …
When Dabbas and his Punchkick partner, Ryan Unger, founded their digital agency in 2006, they had every intention of creating a work environment in which everyone would be an individual contributor and feel empowered to make decisions.
“As we started to hire people, we knew that we didn’t want managers. We didn’t want a hierarchy,” Dabbas explained. “When you’re five or six or seven or eight people, you don’t need any of that, and everything works smoothly, because you’re all in a room, you’re talking, and you get everything hashed out and done.”
But when the company started to grow to 20-plus people, that had to change—slightly. The founders became what Dabbas referred to as “benevolent monarchies.”
“Employees oftentimes didn’t have the information about the business that they needed or the decision-making confidence to do what they needed to do without checking in with me,” Dabbas said. “They wanted me as a gut check. They needed somebody to sound their ideas off of.”
Dabbas and Unger quickly realized that in order to stay agile and innovative, they had to build a system so that everybody had access to the company information they needed to be able to make decisions.
That included setting up an “advice channel,” which enables employees to communicate internally to share expertise.
“Let’s say you are a client services person, and you think we need a whole new telecom system,” Dabbas explained. “You’re dropping client calls with the system in place now, and it’s bad for business. You first have to talk to experts. Who has bought a telecom system before? Who understands how they work? Who can get you up to speed on what the industry looks like?”
Punchkick team members meet as part of the advice channel.
The second step is to touch base—not get permission—with anybody who would be impacted by your decision, such as finance. When people go through these two steps of the advice channel, Dabbas said he’s confident that they make the right decision at the end.
Although Punchkick technically doesn’t have managers or bosses, some people just naturally take on the role of a leader or trusted adviser within the organization. It’s “the most beautiful thing on earth” when somebody rises to the occasion, Dabbas said.
These people “are part of the advice channel and every big decision,” he added. “People come to them for help or whatever they need, and it’s because they’ve proven that they do good work.”
Abby Gartner, Punchkick’s head of customer experience, is a good example, Dabbas said. Gartner was on the client services team, which comprised four individuals responsible for checking on clients and growing accounts. Any time an issue arose, co-workers would go to her for help because she was “just so good with the clients.”
“Eventually, we said, ‘Abby, let’s face it: You’re our head of customer experience,’” Dabbas explained. “We all nominated her to do this, and today that’s all she does. She goes out, makes sure our clients are happy, takes them out, travels, makes sure that things are good. And that role is one that we all respect and admire so much. She earned it.”
All For One
Outside of individual salaries, Punchkick’s team shares all information. The entire company—now 45 employees—meets for a half hour every morning to share news, sales opportunities, status of projects, status of client relationships and possible issues, finances, and more.
“Everybody knows what our goals are every month and how we’re tracking toward them,” Dabbas explained, stressing the importance of transparency in a flat organizational structure.
Punchkick also has a feedback channel where employees rate each other on the work they do. This is somewhat similar to a typical annual review, only it’s not just a manager providing feedback.
“The best part of it all is we have no venture capital, no financing, no funding of any sort,” Dabbas said. “We have thrived all these years completely bootstrapped—solo. And I really think it’s because we're flat.”
Proof that this structure is working for Punchkick: The company has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing privately held companies for five years in a row.
Of course, a flat structure is unlikely for large enterprises, though the idea of giving employees more autonomy, trusting them to do their research and make wiser decisions as a result, is one that large enterprises could potentially learn from.
“Bringing people together into small groups and essentially forcing them to lean on one another’s expertise helps you be more agile,” Dabbas said. “And as customer expectations continue to rise, agility is going to be key in meeting those expectations.”