Recent research has revealed two things. The first is that happiness is important in the workplace, leading to higher productivity. The second is that most people are unhappy at work. While it’s nice to hear about in-house masseurs, nap pods, and Google’s 20% Time policy, the reality of work for most people is completely different. It’s a place where people feel trapped and stuck, as if they’re just another cog in the machine, receiving orders from management and soullessly carrying them out. This phenomenon has been so widespread that the anthropologist David Graeber has begun investigating what he cheekily describes as “bullshit jobs”: jobs that seem completely worthless to the people who carry them out. But beyond the job itself, a large part of worker dissatisfaction stems from problems with their boss. Which is why numerous companies have introduced disruptive policies, flat workplaces, non-traditional workplace hierarchies, and unorthodox principles.
Sorry Michael Scott, but it’s time to go!
A recent poll in the United Kingdom, for example, showed that 44% of respondents felt they would work better without a boss, and that 54% percent of respondents wanted to dismantle the traditional office hierarchy. Furthermore, dissatisfaction with managers has been linked to disengagement and lost productivity at work. The data now seem to suggest what many people have known for a long time: the boss needs you much more than you need the boss. So maybe it’s finally time to say goodbye to the boss, once and for all, and introduce the flat workplace culture. Below we examine three alternatives to the traditional office hierarchy, and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Bridgewater and Radical Transparency
Ray Dalio – CEO/Founder of Bridgewater and the author of Principles
Bridgewater is an investment management firm founded and run by Ray Dalio. Even though finance isn’t a field particularly known for disruption, Bridgewater presents a radically unique view of the workplace. Instead of the typical, dry employee manual often given to employees on their first day, Dalio composed the extensive, eccentric Principles. Principles is more like a philosophic text than an employee manual. It lays out an extensive description of the good life, and delineates clear principles to help you get there. Of these, the most famous, and most important, has come to be known as Radical Transparency. Radical transparency encourages all Bridgewater employees to speak out and express their opinions, even if it might contradict their superior’s point of view. Employees are expected to be straightforward, and criticize people to their face instead of talking behind their back. It essentially eliminates the private sphere, making the entire workplace public.
At first glance, this is an amazing policy. So much time and energy is wasted in workplace politics and flattering the ego of sometimes incompetent superiors. Radical transparency does away with all that, and allows employees to voice their opinions and ideas. It even benefits the firm’s clients. Financial firms are often extremely tight-lipped when it comes to their decisions and data, but Bridgewater has become known for providing its daily newsletter, monthly performance updates, quarterly reviews, and conference-call briefings to all clients.
But of course, there is a downside. Bridgewater functions something like the surveillance state, recording all phone calls, emails, and meetings, so that everything is out in the open. Even if you’re a proponent of workplace surveillance, it’s hard not to see the drawbacks of such a system. Last year, Bridgewater was the subject of a National Labor Relations Board investigation for stifling employees who had experienced sexual harassment at work. The system of radical transparency provided them no privacy or protection to come forth with their claims, and they instead felt trapped inside a “cauldron of fear and intimidation.” Here lies the crux of the problem with radical transparency: even though all employees are technically allowed to speak and express their opinions equally, the continued existence of the workplace hierarchy means that in practice they don’t. Old inequalities remain, and employees are still stifled by their superiors.
Zappos, Medium, and Holacracy
Where radical transparency presented a slight update to traditional workplace structure, Holacracy seeks to completely redefine it. Though it was first developed in 2007 by Brian Robertson, Holacracy only became well known in 2013 when Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of Zappos introduced it to his company. Named after and inspired by Arthur Koestler’s sci-fi novel The Ghost in the Machine, Holacracy does away with the typical pyramid-shaped system of office hierarchy and replaces it with a system of overlapping self-organizing circles. The employees that make up each circle do not have strict job descriptions, but instead fill “roles” that are defined democratically within the circle. It doesn’t do away with hierarchy or structure, but instead attempts to loosen constraints and make the workplace more adaptable and dynamic.
If Holacracy sounds like a bunch of confusing mumbo-jumbo, you’re not alone. Medium tried holacracy for several years, but ultimately abandoned it in March 2016. One of their complaints was precisely that the new system was confusing and jargon-heavy. It took employees too long to understand and adapt to the new structure, which put a strain on productivity. The main problem they had with holacracy was scale. As Medium grew, it became harder and harder to coordinate efforts throughout the company. The distributed autonomy of holacracy worked well for smaller projects, but it simply took too much time and effort for larger, company-wide projects.
Despite Medium’s abandonment of the system, Holacracy continues to grow in popularity, and remains one of the most popular alternative management systems. It is still in use at Zappos as well, although Its reception there has been mixed, for much of the same reasons at Medium: confusion and scale. These two issues have had large effects on turnover and worker happiness as well. For example, roughly 14% of the Zappos workforce left in 2015, and in 2016 Zappos fell off of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, for the first time in eight years.
Valve, GitHub, and a Completely Horizontal Management Structure
A snapshot of Valve’s offices—no bosses here!
Perhaps the main issue with Holacracy is that it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of eliminating hierarchy, it masks power with jargon and distributes it throughout numerous circles. This leaves in place many of the problems of traditional hierarchy, but makes them arcane and impossible to address or deal with. But what lies beyond holacracy? The answer might be found with Valve, a video game development company based in Bellevue, WA. Valve has a unique company structure: there are no bosses at all. Nobody reports to a boss or manager. There is a founder/CEO, but even they don’t have the typical powers associated with a manager. Instead, Valve works through a sort of “action-oriented democracy,” where decisions are made through argument and discussion among peers. This truly flat structure gives freedom to employees to use their creativity and talents, instead of waiting around for orders from above. It enables innovation and helps foster a sense of pride and respect in the company, which boosts morale and productivity.
As Valve themselves admit, it’s not a perfect system. The company estimates it takes around six months for new employees to adjust to the company which can feel like a lifetime in the high-tech sector. It also requires tremendous amounts of effort from everyone involved in the organization, since their input and commitment are continually necessary. The problem of scale also applies here, since the more employees involved, the harder it is to reach consensus. But Valve is, at least, transparent about these issues. Their employee handbook happily admits Valve is far from perfect, and it details areas in which they face issues. This kind of honesty, however, makes it possible for these problems to be addressed and fixed.
Unfortunately, a flat structure requires very particular conditions, and cannot be applied to every company as a sort of blanket solution. Take GitHub, for example. Founded in 2008, it was dedicated to using a horizontal structure similar to that of Valve. In 2014, however, GitHub abandoned this plan and moved towards a typical corporate hierarchy, sending out an internal memo that notified all employees that they soon would be receiving bosses. The main reason for this switch is the ever-present problem with scale. As the company grew to around 600 employees, it was simply becoming too difficult to coordinate efforts and take important steps toward growth. Maybe this, however, is a problem in itself. As the above examples have illustrated, traditional workplace hierarchies seem to have an advantage when it comes to organizing a large, growth-oriented business. At the same time, it’s clear that they are becoming incompatible with employee happiness and work-life balance. A fix to this issue might require more than simply changing company structure, or removing bosses.The foundational principles of work might need to be rethought as well.