Self-management: utopia or chaos?

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Shaping Workplace 2.0 will be no easy task (Source: Getty)

Not so long ago, Web 2.0 revolutionised the internet.

For the first time, monolithic web pages created by corporate institutions met dynamic, user-generated content, and social media began to shape the way we interact. New concepts and paradigms are now emerging in the workplace.

One such paradigm is the self-managed structure, in which the traditional hierarchy is replaced by employee autonomy and control.

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Employees exert control over not just how and when they do their work (so they have unlimited holiday entitlement, in effect), but also what sort of work they want to undertake.

Employees in a self-managed structure can even choose how much they are paid, based on how much they think they have contributed to the organisation. The philosophy is that a distributed peer to peer system works better than a traditional centralised one.

That theory has certainly proven itself to be correct in many contexts: Blockchain, for example. But will it be as successful in the world of work?

It certainly has much to recommend it at first blush. It continues the “millennial” trend of moving towards working arrangements that are more adaptable and integrated with an individual’s life outside of work, and the proposition that people excel when they are free to play to their strengths is a convincing one. Hierarchical institutions that are overly weighed down by tradition and bureaucracy arguably prevent people from optimising their performance.

But at what point does this more indulgent way of working inhibit corporate and personal performance, rather than enable it?

Utopian attempts to reimagine the workplace can create significant problems and liabilities.

A lack of managerial accountability can create an environment in which people can coast or behave in a way that exposes the organisation to legal risk. In a self-managed structure, peers become responsible for calling out bad behaviour or under-performance. That could work in an environment where everyone is open, honest and accountable, but people tend to shy away from having difficult conversations. Whether those conversations take place could well be influenced by something as irrelevant as the popularity of the individual concerned.

That, in turn, has the potential to create a culture that promotes differential treatment and, in the worst case, empowers those who might be socially popular but who have a tendency to bully others.

Differential treatment of individuals also creates real legal risk for organisations, particularly where it involves someone who possesses a legally protected characteristic.

In such circumstances, the onus is on the organisation to explain the reason for the difference in treatment, which may be difficult to do in the absence of consistent and objective standards and responses.

What about the scenario where no one wants to do something that is perceived as boring but that is critically important to the organisation’s future? Important matters, such as compliance, could easily fall between the cracks.

So, as with most new innovations, there are pros and cons. Those brave enough to trial it in their own organisations may well reap the benefits of such free-thinking: it may prove to be a useful weapon in the war to secure, and retain, the most talented individuals who might value freedom and autonomy over all else.

For those who manage to strike the right balance, the real challenge is going to be how to implement and manage it at scale.

At its heart, a self-managed, anarchic structure is reliant on openness, honesty, and trust.

It is easy to see how well it might work among a small group of close-knit colleagues; indeed, it may well be the workplace of the future.

But the challenge, as we embrace disruption, innovation and change is how to implement it successfully, in a way that retains talent and promotes the right culture while also mitigating organisational risk. Shaping Workplace 2.0 will be no easy task.

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