headshot of a white woman
Inspirant Group CEO Meighan Newhouse

Chicago-based Inspirant Group’s 50 employees have been a remote force well before the pandemic. Amir Azarbad, Meighan Newhouse and Chris VanAvermaete — all former employees of global consulting group Deloitte —  launched the group in 2017, calling themselves “recovering consultants.” Their goal was to make a new kind of firm, one that put its employees first. 

Entering the world of work from home during COVID-19 was not a transition for the group, which offers operations advice, talent strategy, and data analytics to clients such as health insurance companies, law firms and fintech startups. Many people are struggling with working remotely and workers across the country are quittting, seeking higher pay or more work-life balance, Newhouse, who’s the company’s CEO, shared how Inspirant built a structure that she says makes a productive and healthy work environment.

Inspirant overhauled its compensation structure this year to move away from the traditional work hierarchy. Instead of a handful of manager roles, such as senior consultant, manager and senior manager, its structure is fairly flat. Compensation is determined on who’s running projects versus individually contributing. 

Perhaps what’s most divergent is its bonuses, which are determined on who’s living the company’s values and providing standout service to its customers, she said. Prior to the overhaul, bonuses were decided on project profits. Now, employees are eligible for two bonuses, which come from a predetermined profit pool. One is based on how long employees have been with the company. The other is determined by quantitative measures — such as writing a blog, presenting at a “lunch and learn” or excellent customer service — and qualitative measures — such as teamwork, creating client relationships, or getting involved with the work community.  

Each employee earns points, which determines how much of the bonus pool they get. The points are reviewed regularly throughout the year by leaders and each employee, she said.

I suggest companies ask their employees what is the most equitable compensation model as well as what benefits the organization should be offering,” Newhouse said. 

The key to a productive and positive work environment lives in sharing the same values, Newhouse said. For Inspirant, it’s integrity, caring about the common good and getting the work done. Here’s how Newhouse suggests establishing that: 

  • CEOs should name values and also discuss what they mean. “You have to talk about what it means to display those values, what sort of behaviors we expect to see people exhibit to show us that they’re living those values,” Newhouse said. 
  • Discussions should occur in regular feedback, not just once or twice a year, Newhouse said.
  • Companies should also keep values short and tangible. Listing something like 15 values will be impossible to create a strong company culture.

Inspirant often hires people on as 1099 contractors before they take on a full-time role. It’s a way for the company and for employees to see if it’s a good fit — Newhouse herself began as a contractor when she started working with Azarbad.  “You can interview people, and you can talk to them a couple times and offer them the role,” she said. “But really, until you start working together in the trenches, and having those more social interactions, you can really see if they are the right fit for your culture.”

Many leaders also have to shift their strategy. Traditionally, leaders have had this “you’re lucky to have this job” attitude when managing people, Newhouse said. People in management need to be working on themselves and thinking about how they lead, she said. “Leaders need to figure themselves out,” Newhouse said. “They need to do whatever work they need to do to properly lead people.”

A great way to do this is to frequently ask employees for feedback, Newhouse said. But you must also act on that feedback. “People aren’t dumb, she said. “They will get it if you’re acting on what they recommended.”

In a work-from-home office, it’s also important to schedule time for your team to connect. Inspirant has once-a-month virtual educational sessions, either from a person on their team or an outside source. Once a month, it has a virtual lunch to celebrate office birthdays and other celebrations. Make it optional, Newhouse said, but encourage everyone to go.

We’re in the midst of a worker revolution, Newhouse said. “There are so many leaders and organizations that grew up in the old model and were successful,” Newhouse said. “Like, this used to work and we did really well, so why would we do something different? I think it’s taking a step back and really looking at what’s going on and understanding that employees now need to be treated as customers.”

“It takes time and change is hard,” she said. “But I think we have been so disrupted the last couple of years, now’s the time to make changes.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Azarbad’s last name. 

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.