Workplace

What Makes Valve Software the Best Office Ever?


Two characters from "Portal 2," a 2011 release from Valve Software

Two characters from "Portal 2," a 2011 release from Valve Software

Valve Software is good at three things: developing first-person shooter games such as Half-Life and Counter-Strike, digitally distributing its games on its 35 million-member Steam network, and keeping its employees happy. The computer software company’s “Handbook for New Employees” (PDF) recently surfaced online and—let’s just say that if we knew anything about designing computer games, we’d send an application to the company right now. Here are the most interesting details found in the 56-page booklet:

The Good
There are no managers or bosses at Valve. Even Valve co-founder Gabe Newell isn’t directly in charge of anyone. “Of all the people at this company who aren’t your boss, Gabe is the MOST not your boss, if you get what we’re saying,” the handbook says. Every Valve employee has hiring capabilities, as well as the power to greenlight an idea. Employees are encouraged to work on their own projects and jump on any others that interest them. It’s basically the Montessori version of running a company. Somehow, this results in completed projects and top-notch video games.

Valve has a company gym, company massage rooms, and free Stumptown coffee. Employees are not expected to work overtime. And once a year, the company takes all its employees and their families on a “tropical” vacation.

The Bad
Discarding weak links. Because there’s no hierarchical structure, Valve admits that “a poor hiring decision can cause lots of damage, and can sometimes go unchecked for too long.” But the company adds, “Ultimately, people who cause damage always get weeded out.” The handbook also admits that the lack of structure makes it hard for people to develop mentors.

The Weird
Valve employees’ desks all have wheels, and people roll their workstations as their group projects change.

Rock music and hair metal are played in the company bathrooms. “You’ll never be able to relieve yourself again unless someone hums Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Valve says.

This line, found in their glossary of terms: “Ponies: the animals most beloved by those away from their computers and most despised by people who prefer to hear jokes just once.” We don’t know what this inside joke means. Apparently, video game geeks like ponies.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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