Could the future of work be bossless?

Self-managed organizations are challenging traditional workplace structures and hierarchies in a redistribution of power that gives employees autonomy over their work.

Could the future of work be bossless?
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What if we could work in organizations that were free of the pathologies most of us accept as unavoidable side effects of a workplace? Things such as bureaucracy, stress and burnout, apathy, toxic leadership and workplace politics. What if we didn’t feel the need to balance our work lives and personal lives because both were deeply fulfilling? 

This is exactly the kind of workplace a growing number of organizations — in fields as varied as health care, banking, non-profit, automotive and education — have been creating. Challenging everything we know about business management, these organizations give their employees complete autonomy over their work. Although power isn’t spread evenly throughout the organization, everyone is powerful in these ecosystem-like communities. 

With an inspiring organizational purpose, self-management practices and transparency, these organizations avoid the potential chaos and indecision that could result from such a management model and ultimately enjoy the success that flows from a group of inspired people.

Inspired by Purpose

A clear sense of purpose is essential and is a strategy supported by research. When Google commissioned a study to determine what made some teams so much stronger than others, having a clear purpose was one of the differentiators. 

To emphasize its importance, some self-managed organizations reserve a chair at all meetings to represent the organization’s purpose. At any point during a meeting, participants can move into the empty chair and become the voice of the organization. Self-managed organizations believe that if they continually work toward their purpose, customer loyalty (and money) will follow.

Without management, employees look to the organization’s purpose for direction. Everything, from deciding whether to work with a client to creating a new role, must be in alignment with the overarching purpose.

How these organizations approach roles, accountabilities and overall structure varies, though most of them strive to create workplaces that encourage adaptivity.

In many cases, this means focusing the organizational structure around the periphery of the organization, which is closest to customers and clients. Being able to learn, respond and change course quickly is viewed as a key to success.

Trusted to Do the Right Thing

Operating with the belief that people are inherently good and can be trusted to do the right thing, these organizations don’t rely on managers to control, direct and decide the actions of others.

Providing staff with communications training ensures people have the necessary tools to operate successfully in a self-managed workplace. Many companies also provide access to coaches, should teams find themselves unable to solve an internal conflict.

Equipped with a clear understanding of the organization’s reason for being, who they serve and what success looks like, employees are free to manage themselves and their work. This also means that anyone in the organization can make a decision, so long as they first seek feedback from colleagues who will be affected by the decision and those with more experience. 

Employees are expected to take the time to seriously consider the feedback they receive, while recognizing that they don’t have to follow every piece of advice. It’s important to note that even the owners of these organizations follow this process of decision-making.

In doing so, they increase information flow and reduce the risk of making a poor decision, while still ensuring that ideas don’t become watered down through a democratic process. Self-managed companies tolerate and even encourage risks that get them closer to their overall purpose.

“Without management, employees look to the organization’s purpose for direction. Everything, from deciding whether to work with a client to creating a new role, must be in alignment with the overarching purpose.”


Could the future of work be bossless?Information is for Sharing

Using intranet sites or platforms such as Slack and MS Teams, information is organized so that it is easy to share and locate. Instead of being inundated with emails “pushing” information, employees are empowered to “pull” the information they require.

Everyone is entrusted with everything from their organization’s financials to employee salaries. In some cases employees use this information, along with an employee-led review panel, to set their own wages. 

Organizations that have tested this management model have found the positive results they have experienced far outweigh any challenges they encounter. They no longer carry the organizational debt associated with bureaucracy and its policies built on distrust.

Employees continue to prove that, on the whole, people want to do good work and contribute to something meaningful.

Despite the extraordinary results that many of these organizations are enjoying, this model won’t be the right fit for everyone. For those organizations that aren’t ready to dive into self-management, but would like to enjoy some of the benefits of this model, consider: 

> Creating (and frequently sharing) a meaningful and inspiring organizational purpose. Make this purpose clear during your hiring process so that you employ people who are aligned with, and motivated by, what your organization is working to achieve.

> Canceling all internal meetings for two weeks, and then working as a team to decide which ones are necessary and which are contributing to your organizational debt.

> Sharing as much information as possible on a platform such as Slack or MS Teams. Encourage others to do the same.

> Hosting a regular “ask me anything” session with your team in the spirit of encouraging transparency.

There has never been a better time to build a workplace ecosystem rich in engagement, loyalty, innovation and purpose. 

Shyla Warner is the founder of Warner Consulting and advises small business owners and leaders on how to build and maintain highly engaged and inspired workplaces.