Four For Friday (27)

This was a week of critical reading of articles discussing the nature of work, the workplace and the worker. The customer should be the centre piece in any discussions about the workplace. That does not seem to be the case.

We must redefine employment and work, argues Andrei Hagiu in this op-ed. His piece frames ‘work’ and the nature of employer-employee/ contractor relationship as something legalistic. This is a limited point of view. We work and live in an ecosystem. With players such as insurance providers, mortgage lenders, landlords, phone companies, and credit scoring agencies. Unless the metrics of creditworthiness and other ways we engage with the ecosystem shift wholesale — that is, not just between employer and employee/ contractor but also how businesses see customers — this proposal is at best incomplete.

Work 3.0 must retain the principles underlying the employee/contractor dichotomy, guaranteeing employer flexibility and worker protections while permitting a spectrum of options: “employee” at one end, “independent contractor” at the other, and lots of novel ideas in the middle.

Holacracy is Zappos’s much watched experiment in a flat workplace with self-managed teams. Here Chuck Blakeman talks about self-managed teams, using a football metaphor. The metaphor while fascinating is limited. In a football match, both teams have loyal fans, whose ordered “product” — an enjoyable match, preferably a win — is delivered instantly. No returns are expected even if there are quibbles later in the newspapers and on social media. I could go on but I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader’s imagination.

When building self-managed teams in the emerging work world, there is no place for big egos. Leaders who want to make others successful and then get out of the way are building remarkable companies everywhere. Those who want to use people to make themselves look better will be left behind. Zappos will know they have arrived when people at Zappos see themselves in the pictures above, and there are no managers in sight.

Chris Yeh argues for a more radical approach to workplace relationships — and a company’s relationship with its alumni — something he calls “advanced common sense”. Of this week’s readings this was the cleanest argument, and the one that promised no magical thinking. In my reading, Chris is arguing for humanity and trust rather than rigid processes and structures. What huge changes will every employee have to make in his or her psychology, risk taking abilities, ongoing learning and ambitions to make this work?

Bringing this all together, Yeh refers to his approach to employee engagement as “advanced common sense”. Instead of promoting employees to management without any instruction, companies need to provide them with the tools and support to have open and honest conversations with their employees and to treat talent with the respect they would want themselves.

I share this reading mainly because it seems to use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, and is first in a series from the Drucker Forum. The Forum is named after the late intellectual Peter Drucker, who famously said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Do tell me if you think my objection is over-reaching in its criticism. The piece titled “How Managers Can See The Future More Clearly” ends with a screed for leaders.

Every leader must cultivate these four skills in his or her own way. When leaders are not sure about the future, the entire organisation suffers. Turbulence becomes the norm. Confusion reigns. What lies ahead is painfully unclear; and, for humans working inside the firm, there can be little joy. These four skills will equip your leadership circle to clarify what’s next for your organization, and focus your management lens on the future.

What do YOU think?