Xconomist of the Week: Rich Sheridan and the Business Value of Joy

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overheard conversations”), as is email between staffers. Sheridan explains that Menlo uses “high-speed voice technology,” and proceeds to demonstrate.

“Hey Menlo,” he shouts.

The hive goes silent and snaps to attention. “Hey Rich,” they answer in unison. (And that’s how you call an all-staff meeting at Menlo Innovations, which any employee can do at any time for any reason.)

Sheridan also employs a team of “high-tech anthropologists,” who are in charge of discovering what a Menlo software user’s experience is by observing them in their natural environment. Most of the anthropologists don’t come from a tech background (one I spoke to previously worked in the floral department of Whole Foods) and, like Star Trek’s wide-eyed Counselor Deanna Troi, are selected for their finely developed sense of empathy, he says.

“The main reason why I came to work here is, I saw it as an environment where I could learn a lot,” says high-tech anthropologist Tracy Beeson. “I had no idea how much. Beyond actual work, I learned about business because we help clients navigate and make decisions. We are part of the pre-sales process for Menlo, and we take on HR functions—we manage each other. The goal is to be the manager and not be the manager at the same time.”

Yes, but … how do they like working for such an unconventional operation?

“It can be exhausting,” Beeson admits. “It takes a while to get used to. In a cube by myself, I could stare at the wall. With a partner, there’s no down time. We have to lean on each other.”

“But we’re focused on a common goal,” Beeson’s partner Justin Wheeler, the former flower guy, interjects. “Even if we clash as people, it’s not hard to home in on what you’re supposed to accomplish.”

Sheridan knows his methods are unorthodox but he says his company’s success proves they work, and he invites anyone who’s curious to come by the office for a tour. In 2011 alone, 1,381 people across 168 tours stopped by to learn about his philosophies, which he’s currently outlining in a book. [Paragraph corrected to indicate accurate number of people that toured in 2011. We regret the error.]

“I have eleven years of unwavering proof that this works,” he adds.

As a journalist, I have a pretty sensitive b.s.-meter, and, despite Menlo’s slightly cultish atmosphere, I detected no trace of disingenuousness on Sheridan’s part. I think back on some of the fear-based offices I’ve worked in and marvel at the freedom and empowerment Sheridan gives his employees and the productivity that seems to result. Clearly, he’s onto something. And, if his book takes off, the business value of joy might just be coming to a company  near you.

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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