Managing a managerless workplace

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 15:09

In recent years, there has been a lot of exuberant talk about the future of work. We've been told that offices will go away, or be considerably scaled back as employees work remotely while work duties will be compartmentalised and outsourced to hyper-specialists. Mobility and freelancing will become the dominant drivers for multi-tasking, flex-ruled working arrangements and crowdsouring and outsourcing will allow people from all over the world to become involved in the global economy.

What would a managerless workplace look like?

Yet, one of the most interesting developments for those attending leadership training is that workplaces will become managerless. But what will this look like and what will this mean for the structure of an organisation?

Peer-to-peer networks of the future

The examples given above are only creative imaginations of what may come into the future. However, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has speculated further and come up with a range of worlds that could manifest in the near future. 

One of the most interesting is what they call the Orange world. Instead of behemoth companies we see in science fiction novels such as the Neuromancer or movies like Blade Runner, the professional services firm believe that the commercial world could be constituted by smaller collaborative networks of organisations and specialists.

These systems of hyper-specialised companies will rely on peer-to-peer networks that leverage technology to collaborate and build. And why not? There has been a series of studies that point to the fact that as technology grows, more and more general, labour-intensive jobs will be phased out. 

Take for instance the 2013 study from the University of Oxford that found close to 47 per cent of total US employment will be obsolete in the next two decades. The researchers believed jobs that are labour intensive and repeatable will be replaced by robotics and automation. 

While not exactly attack of the machines, there is definitely a major trend occurring that will see hyper-specialisation the norm and high-labour roles extinct. A side-effect of this is that as specialisation grows, the need for oversight may decrease and instead of hierarchical organisation we may well see interconnected peer-to-peer networks.

Self-management networks of the present

With all this future talk, it is important to ground ourselves once again. To do this, let's look at an example of what a managerless workplace currently looks like, such as California-based Morning Star Co.

Instead of constant oversight from a manager-class of employees, workers at the the world's largest tomato processor are suspended in a web of shared obligations and expectations. Say you need an expensive piece of machinery to complete your tasks, you can purchase this without first getting permission. 

However, these employees are not working in a power vacuum, instead, they must ensure they consult widely with other colleagues before they take any action. With companies relocating responsibility to their employees in greater amounts, managerless working arrangements are becoming a tangible future.