The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

Bid Goodbye To Privileges

Walk the talk

There are companies which are prepared to change the way they work. They realize that nothing can be based on what used to be, that there is a better way. But, 99 percent of companies are not ready, [they are] caught in an industrial Jurassic Park– Ricardo Semler

In a Nutshell

If someone had to describe a hotshot corporate executive in a game of Pictionary, what might they draw? A luxurious corner office? A dedicated parking spot? Or, a do-it-all assistant? And, they’d totally win the round because these are the symbols most associated with the top management of any organization. These privileges have become so intrinsic to the image of a corporate leader that it’s difficult to imagine one without them.

However, these symbols of power do nothing but increase the distance between the management and employees of an organization. And, more importantly, they make the managers and leaders lose touch with reality. As soon as someone enters the realm of management, they get swallowed by a bubble that inches them away from the people who do the actual work in the business. The privileges become invisible to the leaders and managers who enjoy them because they take them for granted.

Managerial privileges are some of the most dogged hangovers of the industrial era that have the power to reinforce workplace inequalities. They are invisible silos that separate people into those who make decisions and those who execute those decisions. Getting rid of these silly privileges and symbols of power is one of the first things an organization must do if it decides to take the democratic leadership route.

The transformation should begin within the leadership, with top executives and managers walking the talk on closing the gap. In theory, it might sound like a simple practice to implement. But, in reality, this is one of the toughest transformations to achieve because there’s bound to be a lot of psychological resistance from mid and top-level management.


Do away with all managerial privileges and symbols of power.


When an organization does away with all the silly privileges and tosses out jobs reserved for interns and lower-level employees, it sends out a powerful message to the whole organization. That, from hereon, there will be no more distance between the leadership and the employees. When an organization removes the privileges enjoyed by managers and leaders, it shows that everybody’s equal and that they all share the same rights. It’s the first step towards organizational democracy. The employees of a company will begin to trust the leadership only if they walk the talk. If the management continues to enjoy certain privileges, while talking about organizational democracy, then it’s just lip service and it can damage employee morale. An organization that’s serious about becoming democratic should begin the change within its leadership.



Be your own helper: Remove secretaries and personal assistants who’ve been doing all the behind-the-scenes work for managers and leaders. Instead, ask leaders to book their own flights, call their own taxies and complete little bureaucratic tasks on their own.

Bring down the walls: It’s quite common to associate the size of somebody’s room with the extent of their power within an organization. Leave such symbols behind by choosing an open floor format for your workplace. Although they’re pretty common today, it was pretty radical when Semco made their offices open floor in the 80s. Potted plants were placed where the walls once stood.

Use floating desks: Even in an open floor office, there are certain spots that are naturally more privileges with bigger windows or better views. So, nobody should be assigned a certain desk. Instead, people should work on floating desks. In other words, people should start working on whichever desk is available when they arrive at work. At Semco, this meant that very often an intern might find Ricardo Semler working next to them.

Open up the special parking lots: Hold a raffle every six months to select which employees in the organization get to park their cars in reserved parking spots that were once meant only for the top brass. At Semco, the two special parking spots could belong to anyone – the intern, the cleaner or the CEO.

Make your own coffee: Remove or reassign people whose only job was to make coffee or tea for managers, leaders and their guests. Encourage people to make their own beverages at work and get it right the first time.

Welcome, usher and send off your guests: In many organizations, guests visiting top level executives are welcomed at the reception and ushered into the office of the executive by someone. And when the meeting’s over, they return to escort the guests outside and send them off. Do away with such displays of power and ask your executives to welcome, usher and send off their guests on their own.

Level to implement



Make the transition in a transparent way

Walk the talk

Give some context to why you’re making this transition

Think about including private spaces where people can work by themselves


Make any exceptions to this transition

Expect people to perform at their peak levels immediately after the transition

Give into resistance from mid or top level managers


Sends out a very positive message to the whole organization

Improves employee morale

Increases their sense of belonging

Minimizes frustrations that might exist because of hierarchy


Might be difficult for people, who are used to quiet, private working spaces to immediately adjust to an open floor working space

It might impact quality of work in the initial stages of the transition because people are still adapting

Mid-level managers, who’ve just begun enjoying their managerial perks, might feel threatened and let down

Most resistance might come from mid-level and top-level management who will be most affected by the transition

There might be some investment required to redesign the workplace/ facility to suit the transition


One of the former CEOs of Semco was once working right next to an intern. It so happened that when the intern took a toilet break, he received a call. The CEO took the call for him and said, “Hi! How can I help you?” and the person calling said they needed to talk to the intern. So, the CEO said the intern was not at his desk presently and asked, “What message can I take for him?” The person on the other end gave his message, which the CEO put down on a post-it note and left it on the intern’s desk. Then he left for a meeting. When the intern came back to his desk, he found the note left there for him by the CEO. So, imagine a company where the CEO takes down messages for the intern. It’s quite impressive when you compare it against the power distances that exist in most other organizations.


Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

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