A 2012 Gallup survey of employee engagement in 142 countries showed that in Australia, 60 per cent of employees are dissatisfied with their work, while 16 per cent are actively disengaged.
In a bid to remedy this, organisations have instigated a range of employee engagement programs. But while such efforts often work in the short term, they have failed to deliver lasting results.
There’s a growing realisation that the problem is not with the employees – it’s the way organisations are structured. We are starting to see that in an information-rich world where people want fulfilment and even enjoyment in their work, the old pyramid-style hierarchical systems are failing both organisations and the people who work for them.
Add to this trend the attitudes and beliefs of the generation now entering the workforce: entrepreneurial, team-oriented, and authority-phobic, they prefer the shared economy of Uber and Airbnb. This cohort does not respond to positional power the way previous generations have. They know how to challenge power, and they will do it.
The solution, according to a new wave of management thinkers and CEOs, is to reinvent management altogether. It’s not the work or the workers that are the problem. It’s the way we manage both.
Some organisations have already taken a leap of faith and redesigned themselves using self-managed teams as the operating model. These new ways of working are not just an add-on. They require a wholesale reinvention of corporate decision making, processes and responsibilities. Their examples show that even large, complex organisations can operate on self-managed principles, and that the energy and potential that is unleashed is phenomenal.
Pioneers of the movement, the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX), an online community led by Professor Gary Hamel, talk about ‘hacks’ and ‘moonshots’ as they trial new ways of working. The MIX is sponsored by a network of strategic partners including Harvard Business Review and McKinsey & Company.
These early adopters show that, in general, the quality of work life and employee satisfaction (positive attitudes) are considerably higher, with consistent reports of significant reductions in costs along with increased productivity.
At Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, employees can outsource mundane aspects of their job without asking for permission. At a GE plant that assembles jet engines in North Carolina there is just one supervisor and 400 employees. Results have been so good that GE is rolling out this model in another 80 factories.
Under the leadership of Ricardo Semler, the highly successful Brazilian company Semco boasts an organisational chart that features concentric circles, representing autonomous, democratically run units that interact with each other. In just one innovation, Semco has done away with all restrictions on business travel. The caveat is that employees publish their expenses online where colleagues can view them. They are constrained not by the need for management approval or company guidelines, but by their peers.
The online music site Spotify has a flat hierarchy using autonomous eight-person ‘squads’. Each squad can choose what they want to work on, as long as they adhere to the internal company motto of ‘Be autonomous, but don’t sub-optimise’.
At California-based Morningstar, the world’s largest tomato processor, there are no titles and no promotions. Even with 400 full-time employees, no one has a boss and employees negotiate responsibilities with their colleagues. When decisions need to be made, they seek the advice of their colleagues before deciding.
Even the Australian Federal Police is moving away from a rigid paramilitary command and-control style to a focus on flexible, multi-skilled teams.
What can we learn from these pioneers? It’s easier to work with human nature than against it. And that employees can even enjoy work.