Taking work-life balance to ‘Next Level’

Gaming company's culture lures workers from competition

Gamers are incredibly passionate about their work — maybe even a bit too passionate, considering the industry is known for high burn-out rates, said Eric Randall, president of Vancouver-based Next Level Games.

That’s because it’s easy for programmers, designers and producers to get caught up in the momentum of projects and pull consecutive late-nighters, he said.

While some employers would consider such a devoted workforce ideal, Next Level thinks that’s a short-sighted view so it deploys a simple strategy to discourage its 100 employees from working too late. Everyone at the game development studio is required to attend meetings held daily at 9:30 a.m.

“By making sure everyone is in early in the morning, when 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. rolls around, they are far more likely to go home,” said Randall.

This kind of commitment to work-life balance is one of the reasons Next Level Games made Canada’s Top 100 Employers list for 2008 for the first time.

“A lot of companies talk about work-life balance,” he said. “We pride ourselves on actually doing something about it.”

It turns out the company’s four founding members, industry veterans including Randall, were right about their founding philosophy: Given the choice, many gamers prefer a mix of work and pleasure.

In its brief, five-year existence, Next Level has lured some of the top gaming talent away from the 100 or so competing studios in Vancouver (including big names such as Electronic Arts, Black Box Games and Radical Entertainment) and the turnover is so low it goes unnoticed, said Randall.

“We are looking for people who are well-rounded. We want people who get excited about going snowboarding and playing with their kids. That’s what we think makes a good work environment, where people are able to make really good decisions and creative products.”

Given this perspective, it’s not surprising one of Randall’s proudest moments was hearing through the grapevine that an employee’s wife had e-mailed an in-house producer, stating simply: “Thank you for giving Ted back to me.” Clearly, Ted was forced to spend more time with his previous employers than with his wife, said Randall.

The priority placed on respecting family life is supported by a maternity leave top-up of 80 percent for 27 weeks and a parental leave top-up for adoptive parents of 80 percent for 27 weeks.

“We researched what our competitors were offering and made our benefits just a little better,” said Randall.

Next Level also provides new employees with three weeks’ vacation, plus five paid personal days and time off at Christmas. All employees are enrolled in the company’s profit-share program because 100-per-cent ownership by the staff ensures they feel vested in the company, he said. And the workplace culture is collaborative.

“We want everyone to share their thoughts and criticisms,” he said.

Keeping staff enthusiastic and engaged is also tricky in the project-based business. The company devotes a lot of resources to skill development and training boot camps, created in-house for staffers experiencing downtime between big projects and for those gamers whose roles finish up before others. Also, the project “producers” (who manage teams) are responsible for coaching employees.

“So each producer has a one-on-one meeting with team members weekly. The goal in those conversations is to talk about skill development, develop a plan and help people learn,” said Randall.

With such an inclusive, interactive management style, and respect for employees’ private lives, it’s not surprising employees who seek new opportunities elsewhere “go with our blessing,” he said.

Next Level wouldn’t want to hold anyone back, he said, and does not want to expand the office because it might risk losing the intimacy so integral to the culture.

Next Level also strives to be a socially responsible company. Last May, it formed an employee-based environment committee to tackle community green activities. And in the fall of 2007, it launched “Shut Down Sun Down,” an in-house fundraiser where employees were asked to shut off their office computers every night for one month. The energy savings were tracked and a cheque for $340 was cut for the employees’ charity of choice, the B.C. Children’s Hospital.

“We really want to try to do what’s right. The fact that more people are attuned to environmental issues, and from a hiring point of view, it’s just a plus,” said Randall.

Lesley Young is a Newmarket, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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