The ‘Un’ Organisation
The digital revolution has transformed the way we work, and where we work. Everywhere is now an office – whether it’s the local coffee shop, the beach, or the bedroom. Our always on culture and the rise in demand for flexible working is leaving the physical office space behind. But what does that also mean for who is the organisation, and how it is structured? If anyone can contribute from anywhere, then where do the boundaries of an organisation begin and end?
In an increasingly networked world, businesses can access skills and capabilities from around the world, and there is growing focus on understanding how networks operate and how to harness them. The relationship between employers and employees may shift to connecting to talent rather than ‘owning’ it. Flatter organisational structures that enable quicker decision-making, more self-direction and faster innovation are likely to become more common; and a growing body of evidence suggests that such organisations outperform those with more traditional hierarchies in many situations.
What might these new workplaces, cultures and structures look like and what opportunities could they bring?
Working from co-working and flexible work-spaces is on the rise as options increase beyond the binary of home and office. Freelancers and small companies can get by without a permanent office, just hiring appropriate spaces as needed by the hour for client meetings or workshops, using platforms such as Breather. For the more adventurous, there is now scope to work remotely while travelling and never go into the office at all, via the Remote Year initiative that aims to realise the promise of the digital nomad lifestyle. Communities of 75 people travel the world together as co-working groups with remote jobs, spending a month at a time in twelve cities across Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. While this has obvious benefits for individuals, the implications for workplace cultures are less clear. Will they become more impersonal as face-to-face contact diminishes? How can they build a sense of community or shared endeavour? Looser ties to the office are rapidly becoming the norm in knowledge work, and feeding into a nascent trend for distributed work.
Distributed, on-demand work
Examples of new, looser work platforms are rapidly emerging. We’re all familiar with Uber; less familiar, (but potentially just as disruptive) are knowledge work platforms such as Smarties and Upwork. Smarties, a start-up from Imperial College, describes itself as offering access to a ‘virtual, scalable, on-demand workforce of hundreds of the smartest young people on the planet’. Smarties has created a distributed mechanism for knowledge work that allows complex projects, previously tackled by a dedicated individual or team, to be broken up into discrete ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’. These are then rapidly completed by a crowd of selected graduates – who sign up for the chance to do stimulating, high value work and the flexibility to work in their own time.
If this model takes off, the implications for knowledge work could be far-reaching. Fluid, gig economy-style work patterns could become the norm, salaried work a relic of the past. Graduates from Asia and Africa could gain access to global employment without leaving their home countries. What might this mean for the way companies structure themselves? For collaboration? For human interaction at work and workplace culture? For skills development and work-life balance?
New management and ownership models
In the face of these challenges and opportunities, traditional hierarchical organisational structures look flat-footed. Some companies are already experimenting with self-organising collaborative structures – for example the company Zappos has moved to a ‘holacracy’ model that abolishes traditional management roles and encourages employees to work in a more self-directed way. Zappos spokesperson Jordan Sams says that one of the strongest benefits of this new model has been unearthing the innovation potential of their employees: “I’ve seen quite a few ideas that have previously been shot down under the old structure that have actually manifested themselves and got off the ground.” The software company Valve is another example – they use an almost completely flat model where everyone has to find or start their own project and recruit other employees to the cause. Valve credits this culture of ‘spontaneous order’ for its high levels of success and continuous innovation.
Others are experimenting with completely decentralised models. Colony is a blockchain-based collaboration platform that aims to help people around the world build globally-distributed companies together, without the need for central management at all. Ownership and renumeration can then be distributed according to the value that each person has created via their direct contributions. It’s early days for this model, but if it works it could trigger rapid change in the world of work, and turbo-charge the trends in distributed and remote working discussed above. The key question then is – can it avoid the power-imbalance problems of the current gig economy, and instead generate a win-win solution for both workers and organisations?