Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Dystopian Future In Which Everyone Is The Boss

Across a number of professions, bosses have been vanishing. Last year, Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe mega-retailer Zappos, announced that the company would implement Holacracy, a hierarchy-free office model with which Hsieh had become enamored after attending a conference talk by its creators. Under Holacracy—which bills itself as a system that “removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles”—Zappos employees would design their own job descriptions and work with colleagues in autonomous “circles” free from the hovering interference of “people managers.” (Former people managers were to find new roles in the company or accept buyouts.)

Hsieh hasn’t been the only boss to institute a bossless office in recent years. Somewhere between rigid corporate hierarchy and the approximately three hundred worker cooperatives that exist in the US today lies an expanding realm of manager-free workplaces. Most are white-collar and many, like Zappos, are the sorts of tech firms that have been famously predisposed to collaborative work arrangements, casual dress codes, beanbags, and other anti-corporate trappings since the beginning. But there are also industrial operations like Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing plant, where over 2,000 employees annually sign “Colleague Letters of Understanding” that lay out each worker’s job description and output goals, in lieu of managers to oversee production. In a 2013 overview for New York Magazine on the rise of bossless workplaces, Matthew Schaer reported that even Morning Star’s internal conflicts were resolved without hierarchy: instead of management or HR handling clashes between employees, anywhere from one to ten of the feuding parties’ colleagues would be enlisted to mediate the spat.

Does the bossless office signal progress for workers? The majority of Americans still answer to supervisors, and there are scant few who haven’t grumbled—if not seethed—over incompetent, abusive, or overly controlling managers. A number of studies have unsurprisingly confirmed that bad bosses create undue amounts of stress for workers. Thus, it stands to reason that removing such meddlesome disciplinarians, as companies like Zappos and Morning Star have done, has the potential to improve worker morale vastly. “It’s a beautiful way of structuring a workplace,” Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen told Inc. magazine last year. “Management is not nearly as necessary as it thinks it is.”

Growing evidence suggests that the disappearance of management bureaucracy also makes offices more productive. In an interview with Current, Martha Little, a senior producer at Audible, praised the company’s collaborative work structure and explained that top-down management was quickly becoming an obsolete way of organizing workplaces. “In this very fast-paced, very tech-oriented media-delivery-service world, I don’t think the hierarchies can really keep up with the fast pace of change, flexibility and input of ideas that you need to compete,” she said. In the Wall Street Journal, Tim Clem, an employee at the tech outfit GitHub [ed. no relation], similarly noted of his company’s bossless setup, “It makes you want to do more.”

But if employees at bossless offices often report good spirits and high productivity, outside of true worker cooperatives there is a hard limit to the workplace democracy, and it usually takes the form of the company’s purse strings. As Schaer noted of Morning Star, “The company is privately held, and no employee, no matter how hard-performing, is entitled to a share of the profits.” And different pay grades exist at all of the aforementioned “flattened” companies, no matter whose or how many voices are “heard” at company meetings.

Not only does the bossless office camouflage longstanding monetary inequalities, it also outsources the tasks once assigned to managers to an increasing number of workers. Employees at bossless companies who have supposedly been liberated from their manager overlords are generally compelled to absorb the duties of the now-nonexistent management in addition to whatever roles they might otherwise perform. At the software company Menlo Innovations—which prides itself on its boss-free, non-hierarchical work environment—committees of employees must reach consensus on most HR matters including hiring, firing, and determining employees’ pay. The absence of management, in other words, tends merely to displace “traditional” boss responsibilities onto a new group of people rather than eliminate them entirely.

Media theorist Alexander Galloway has challenged the assumption that horizontal arrangements are inherently egalitarian. According to Galloway, over the last few decades, labor and culture alike have been increasingly organized as networks—evident in the rise of “flexible” workplaces and cultural phenomena like the rise of social media. While plenty of academics and activists alike continue to believe that the dissolution of official hierarchy (the boss, the state) is synonymous with the dissolution of power, Galloway argues that such processes may only reflect the changing nature of a post-Fordist world. He further cautions, “Centralized verticality is only one form of organization. The distributed network is simply a different form of organization, one with its own special brand of management and control.”

by J.C. Pan, Literary Hub |  Read more:
Image: uncredited