If you work at a startup, you almost certainly take on tasks outside your role. Whether it’s the CEO cleaning up after lunch or an engineer running a demo because the only sales rep is sick, each employee is expected to pitch in when needed. In particular, until your startup hires an office manager, everyone’s the office manager. The tasks of making sure food arrives, scheduling team outings, taking notes, and keeping the space clean are distributed across the organization.
Unfortunately, “office housework” disproportionately falls on female employees. Whether it’s due to cultural conditioning that women are more nurturing, the unconscious stereotype that women do housework, or the simple fact that women who don’t help out are negatively perceived, one gender finds itself picking up most of the slack.
Additionally, outside of gender, in many small companies, it’s easy to see a hierarchy form — younger or more junior employees may feel more pressured to help out with office-related tasks because executives are “too busy.”
At Human Interest, we want everyone to have equal ownership in keeping the office running. No one is “too good” to help, and no one should have to do more than their fair share. So we created “czarships” – our way of making office housework equitable and, hopefully, a little bit fun.
What’s a czarship?
We broke down office manager tasks into seven areas: facilities, food, cleaning, welcome, notes and systems, procurement, and fun. Each area forms a czarship over which one or two employees will have (almost) absolute control. Because the areas are fairly separate, each czar can operate independently and efficiently.
We randomly assigned employees to rule over a czarship, knowing their duties will take 1-2 hours a week (the larger areas, like fun and procurement, have co-czars). Each employee’s reign generally lasts for three months, after which we rotate again so that no one gets locked into a certain area.
Czars enjoy a great deal of autonomy over their areas – they’re called czars, after all, not prime ministers. They can do whatever they think makes sense without having to check in with people, take polls, build consensus, and generally take up everyone’s time, which is the system we often defaulted towards. Our employees tend to be perfectionists, and also just very nice/accommodating in general–not the most efficient type when trying to do something as minor as what type of snack to order for the week. Czars rule not by democracy but by revolution: They don’t need to bring everything to a vote, but employees can challenge them on major concerns.
Having a designated leader with substantial power is incredibly helpful for efficiency. As the company grew from five to 10 to 20 and beyond, building consensus became unsustainably time-consuming. By giving one person authority over fairly irrelevant decisions (say, choosing the coffee vendor), we’re able to sidestep hours of back-and-forth and the associated mindspace so we can all get back to our core work functions.
What’s in a czar’s purview?
Here’s the breakdown of our seven czarships:
Facilities: The facilities czar ensures that the office is (mostly) clean and accessible. They coordinate with cleaners and handymen, find vendors for office-related tasks, hold key copies, help employees when they’re locked out, does basic troubleshooting on systems (phone, Internet, thermostat, etc.), and makes sure everyone keeps their space tidy.
Food: The food czar (as you probably guessed) keeps the office fed – ordering snacks and drinks with a monthly budget, keeping the kitchen stocked, handling snack requests and ensuring a plentiful supply of caffeine.
Procurement: This job is big enough to split in two. One person keeps office supplies in stock and makes approved non-food purchases, while the other sets up larger equipment like monitors and desks or hires handymen to do the same.
Welcome: The welcome czar is the public face of the office, and generally is tasked with being friendly to new people. They handle visitor arrangements, answer the door, receive mail and packages (and unpacks them), and do basic recruiting work like scheduling informational coffees and making travel arrangements.
Notes and systems: The notes and systems czar doesn’t just take notes during meetings, they ensure everyone shows up on time to those meetings, enforces internal HR deadlines, hold people accountable for things they volunteered for, and serve as the emergency gofer. They also handle the logistics of onboarding (setting up accounts and so forth) as well as czarships themselves.
Cleaning: This one’s pretty straightforward – the cleaning czar takes out the trash, makes sure the kitchen area is clean, runs the dishwasher and wards off fruit flies.
Fun: Finally, we have the fun czar (rather, czars – it’s big enough to need two people). One czar remembers birthdays and orders special treats, arranges gifts, plans one-offs like company milestone celebrations. The other is responsible for coordinating and scheduling team dinners, planning social events, ordering team lunches and supporting his or her counterpart when necessary.
What happens when we get an office manager?
Last year, we grew large enough to need a part-time office manager. She has her hands full running the seven areas and others, so we still need to pitch in. We’ve moved from czarships to elves, from dictatorships to behind-the-scenes helpers (mostly because this transition happened during the holiday season). Specifically, we have:
- Scribes, who take notes during meetings and coordinate surveys
- Welcome elves, who answer the door and receive packages when the office manager is busy
- Dish elves, who load, run, and empty the dishwasher
- Food elves, who order our biweekly team lunches
- Lunch scheduling elves, who coordinate our lunch-and-learns and clean up the eating area afterwards
- Breakfast elves, who clean up after our Friday team breakfasts
Even though we have an office manager, we’re all still part of the office, and we treat it as our collective responsibility.
Why we love czarships
One of the czarship system’s main benefits is, as we mentioned before, ensuring that no one is disproportionately burdened by office housework. Another is the constant reminder that no one’s too good for any task – our CEO is on the rotation just like everyone else. It’s made decision-making more efficient, and it’s helped foster bonds – co-czars from different teams get a chance to work together, perhaps for the first time.
Lastly, and most interestingly, we found that as a young, growing company that is hiring new people all the time, that czarships were a nice “sandbox” of sorts for us to test our various communication strategies and processes in a low-risk way. This was helpful to us even in our core business functions, as we discovered transferrable lessons from organizing an office supply request system or company-wide polls about snacks that taught us a lot about effective ways to organize and communicate even in our regular work.
Does this sound like the kind of place you want to work? You’re in luck – we’re hiring! Check our careers page for open positions.Other Human Interest culture articles:
Margarette Jung is a former Head of Marketing at Human Interest.