Meet Abzu, a European artificial intelligence company, where there are no bosses and everyone chooses their own salary

people sitting on mountain
Abzu gathering in Tenerife, January 2020.

Abzu has chosen to take a unique approach to their business operations: There isn’t a formal hierarchy, every employee has a stake in the company, and each employee decides for themselves what their salary should be.

The inspiration comes from the Netherlands, where the teal organization model has achieved great success. “At Abzu, we believe in self-management,” says Jonas Wilstrup. His official title is COO, but it’s almost only for decorative purposes.

Abzu is an applied research startup whose technology is inspired by self-organizing systems, resulting in a transparent and trustworthy artificial intelligence. The startup has offices in Copenhagen and Barcelona and just under 20 employees.

“I’d like to believe that Abzu is a pioneer in both artificial intelligence technology and our self-management culture. We believe that our colleagues can become the best version of themselves and do an even better job when given full autonomy and trust,” said Jonas Wilstrup.

Abzu fully trusts its employees

If employees want to go home early and continue their work in the evening (when the kids are in bed, or after a long bicycle ride), then they can do that. If they want to work long hours three days per week and take the rest of the week off, then they can choose to do that.

Jonas stands firm that employees should be able to set their own schedules. “We have confidence in people’s own ability to make decisions and design their own work. There is no framework for working hours or working methods, and all employees are responsible for performing their work in exactly the way they want.”

A normal day at the office includes collaboration and individual work.

Additionally, all company information is available to all employees. Abzu’s budget is regularly reviewed with everyone, and all employment contracts are shared; everyone knows how much everyone else earns, including the corporate entity.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it works. We have confidence in people’s ability to make decisions and put their work together. The idea of managing your employees and framing their work to make sure they do what they were hired to do is a misconception. At Abzu, we believe that if our colleagues have full independence to trust each other’s work, they will become more motivated to do their jobs — and will even do a better job,” says Jonas Nygreen. His title may be Commercial Lead, or Head of Sales, or possibly New Business Development Manager.

If a decision affects the company, ask your colleagues for advice

Although Abzu has no formal bosses, everyone is responsible for a specific functional area or subject matter. For example, Jonas Wilstrup is responsible for finances and operations, so he presents the budget — profit and losses — at Abzu’s monthly gathering. It’s only natural that colleagues turn to him if they have any finance-related questions.

There is an unspoken rule that people must ask at least one other colleague every time they have to make a decision that affects the company, such as a large purchase or a new hire.

“It is extremely important to ask for your colleagues’ opinions for self-management to work. However, it does not need to be a consensus. An employee has the full right to make a decision, and luckily, most people take their colleagues’ advice into consideration,” says Jonas Wilstrup.

people eating lunch
Abzu eats family-style meals together whenever possible.

Is the system ever abused?

Many people wonder if employees ever give themselves exceedingly high salaries. But Jonas Nygreen commented: “Would you do that? Everyone knows what everyone earns. People are extremely reasonable and good at relating to what they deliver themselves.”

Occasionally someone will give themselves a temporary salary increase if they have worked more than usual for a longer period of time, and those who have children typically are paid more than those who don’t have a family to support. Currently, all employees earn anywhere between 3,500 to 6,700 Euros per month.

Can Abzu’s future growth affect their practices?

“Our ambition, of course, is to grow without compromising our company culture. Hopefully, in the future when the company has 100 employees, we will continue to work the same way; however, when this happens, we will evolve into smaller self-managing teams where each team is responsible for a specific area of the company,” says Jonas Wilstrup.

Jonas Nygreen thinks Abzu’s self-organizing structure is crucial to attract highly-skilled people who come from very highly-paid jobs. Jonas Nygreen himself came from a high position at a consulting firm. He found Abzu when he was looking to get away from the traditional organizational structure that became meaningless to him.

“As I climbed the ranks, I felt a rising top-down management. A top-down management that often hampered cross collaboration. From my perspective, it became obvious that this does not always create optimal conditions to deliver the best value to the customer.”

Could all companies adopt the Abzu way?

“It isn’t easy for everyone because there isn’t a boss who gives you a list of tasks that need to be accomplished by next week. We’ve had a couple of colleagues who said it was too difficult. But I believe that’s because we are so used to working under fixed conditions,” says Jonas Nygreen.

“All companies want motivated employees, and this can be achieved by giving them more responsibility to do their work. That’s why I believe that we will see more workplaces make work more flexible for employees in the future.”

This article is based on an interview by Julie Daglas for the Danish newspaper Berlingske and an interview an interview on TV2’s Go’ aften Live.

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