The rest

From brick walls to glass walls

Topics
autonomy, Building a great workplace, HR, Management 3.0, transparency, Trust, work life

The dream of work places with no hierarchies or bosses seems to be a popular news topic now that people in Finland are returning from vacation. Often trendy IT companies attract the interest of journalists because these organisations have minimal bureaucracy and anything but traditional bossy bosses. For example, a week ago Helsingin Sanomat had a short article about workplaces without bosses (Venla Pystynen, 4.8.2013). A work place without hierarchies and bosses is a dynamic and creative environment, but it is no paradise. Removing the brick walls of hierarchy does give freedom, but the thing people start bumping their heads into are glass walls. First of all, removing the organisation hierarchy (i.e., who is whose boss) makes the existing power hierarchies much more difficult to see. When people organise themselves there will always be some sort of a pecking order, and often there is nothing inherently bad about it: people with more experience have more people listening to their opinions, or people who have worked a long time at the company often hold more power to make decisions and influence others. These kind of invisible power relations are difficult to see, for example, for a new employee. It takes time to learn who is who and who has more influence than others. In a way, having no explicit hierarchies is less transparent than having clearly defined who is the boss. Having said that, making it official that there are no bosses (or few bosses) the work place gives everyone the power to question the implicit hierarchies. For example, the employees can start asking who decides who participates in what meetings. At its best, by saying aloud that there is no boss, it drives the organisation to question the existing power relations. The second glass wall is unclear roles and responsibilities. When there is no pigeon hole to fit into in the organisational hierarchy, it is not obvious what is the person supposed to do. This can be a great thing: when there are no pre-defined borders a person can pursue what he or she is best at. However, it can be frustrating as well. There are no clear orders to follow, no clear expectations, no obvious person to ask for guidance, and no clear career path. Different people take the lack of clear borders differently. Some people really bloom in such an environment, but some people struggle to work when they are surrounded by a borderless space of opportunities. Nothing can be more paralysing than the sentence: "You can do whatever you want!". Also, when there is no boss to give orders, then people listen to their inner boss, and that boss can be much more of a slave driver than a real one. When people are unsure of what they are supposed to do their inner boss tends to play it safe and be more conservative and demanding than an actual supervisor. Perhaps this is the protestant work ethic embedded into Finns. This brings us to the third point. In an non-hierarchical environment people can be running wildly in all directions pursuing their borderless goals (while some people might be paralysed by the lack of borders). Once again, this might be a fantastic thing. For example, the academic world kind of works like this: academics pursue their own individual careers constrained only by funding and opportunities for tenure. There are organisations such as research institutions, and they work by collecting individual academics with close enough goals under the same roof. There is a lesson to be learned from the academia. If an organisation wants to align the people to pursue a specific goal, then it has to get the people to run more or less in the same direction. Therefore, in a non-hierarchical environment it is important to have the shared goals clearly stated that people can then align their own goals with the organisation's goals, or people with similar goals can join the organisation. After all, we can achieve much more if we join forces and not run around individually. Then, of course, when there are no bosses, the common organisational goal becomes a negotiation among the people working there rather than a top down order. In summary, life without bosses might sound like a good idea after the first day back at the office. However, as any self-employed entrepreneur has known for centuries, being one's own boss is no paradise. Once all the bosses have been eliminated the simple thing that happens is that the people have to take more responsibility themselves. Lot of energy goes into negotiating with people and trying to find the right thing to do, and often there is much, much more communication, networking, and other similar groundwork to be done. Never underestimate how easy it is to work under clear orders, and how easy it is to have a boss to blame for everything.   The author is the boss of over dozen designers at Futurice. His daily work consists of building glass walls to help his designers to have a meaningful job and a fruitful career. His own boss has never given him a single order, and he is very happy about that. The author is also a father of three children and he wants to make it crystal clear that when it comes to children, hierarchy and bosses is the only way of working.