The new, self-organizing workplace

One effect of the pandemic and remote work: flatter, looser organizational structures. Here’s why that’s a good thing—and how the right software can help manage it.

More than 20 years ago, I joined an internet startup that had some unconventional ideas about the workplace that deserve revisiting as offices begin to reopen across the U.S.

The company had no requirements for employees to come into the office. Even people who lived within a comfortable commuting distance could work remotely full-time if they wanted. Most showed up no more than a couple of days per week; there were no set hours, either. Job expectations were defined by outcomes which, for people in my group, had little to do with the time of day. There was also no vacation policy. Employees were free to take as many days off as they wanted because no one was counting.

Over time I came to appreciate the brilliance of this lackadaisical approach to management. My task was to hire 50 people in less than 18 months on a tight budget during the lowest unemployment levels in 30 years. I discovered that there were pockets of outstanding people who were being completely ignored by the labor market.

One was young mothers. Many had family responsibilities that made a 9-to-5 schedule difficult or impossible to keep, particularly for those who lived more than an hour away. About one-quarter of the people I hired during that time fell into this category. Most were more than willing to trade salary for flexibility, and they were some of the most dedicated and capable people I’ve ever worked with.

Another was people who had to make the life choice to settle far away from major metropolitan areas. Not all relished the gig economy, and they were happy to trade some upside on income for a job that promised a steady paycheck and benefits without sacrificing their sanctuaries in the woods.

I also discovered something counterintuitive about vacation time: When people were given complete discretion, they took less time off. The policy also avoided a problem I had wrestled with at my previous company, where many long-term employees were forced to fulfill vacation quotas late in the year and leave us shorthanded.

All in all, I learned that the more flexibility people were given the more responsibly they behaved. I hired more than 100 people in six years at that company and had to discipline or fire exactly two for abusing workplace liberty.

The end of hierarchy?

I’m telling this story now because, as workplaces reopen, business leaders will face the question of how to manage a workforce that resists rigidity. Now is a good time to revisit our assumptions about hierarchies and the industrial-age thinking that demands workers be at their machines at set times to be productive.

Hierarchies may be on their way to becoming obsolete, at least in some scenarios. In a recent speech at the Adobe Summit, author Malcolm Gladwell contrasted Martin Luther King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

King’s orchestrated initiative took months of preparation and involved training hundreds of people in the tactics of civil disobedience. King was the leader, both figuratively and literally. The times demanded it.

BLM, in contrast, had no leaders. It came together spontaneously across more than 500 cities propelled by social media, following in the footsteps of the similarly leaderless Arab Spring movement of a decade earlier.

One could debate the effectiveness of either approach, but there’s no question that the network model is currently ascendant. Gladwell notes that when he was a child, the ultimate authority of information was the encyclopedia, an aggregation of knowledge from a small group of domain experts assembled through a highly regimented process.

Today we have Wikipedia, a corpus of information to which anyone can contribute that has grown to be many times larger than any encyclopedia, and yet, somehow manages to achieve nearly equal levels of accuracy in the most critical areas.

Does this mean the network model will ultimately displace hierarchies? Both have their place. Unconferences haven’t rendered structured events obsolete, and a military campaign fought without clear lines of authority would be a disaster. Chains of command are sometimes necessary.

But the effectiveness of self-organized networks in certain scenarios can’t be denied. Generation Z, or those people born between 1997 in 2012, will soon become the largest U. S. consumer population and a force to be reckoned with in the workplace. This generation has grown up with the expectation that communications will be horizontal and organizing principles driven by consensus rather than fiat. Many companies will struggle to adapt to those expectations, but they will fail to do so at their peril.

Technology to enable self-governed networks is proliferation. Applications like Asana, Wrike, Slack, and Monday enable teams of people to govern projects collaboratively without any top-down leadership. Software developers have been pioneers in this area with the agile DevOps methodology giving birth to tools like Jira for self-governing workflows.

One of the more interesting startups I’ve seen in this area is Legion, a company that makes software that employers and their hourly workers can use to optimize schedules that accommodate the needs of both groups.

Networks might just be a better way for businesses to manage their knowledge workers. It wasn’t until a couple of years into my previous job that I realized that the flexible workplace policy benefited the company as much as its people. Trading salary for flexibility reduced the cost of labor, including the overhead of monitoring employee comings and goings. It was, to use a cliché from another decade, a win-win.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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