But only in recent years have we really seen the ideal of the democratized workplace brought to its logical conclusion: companies that don’t just have fewer managers and bosses but have hardly any bosses at all.
Last month, Fox debuted a reality show called Does Someone Have to Go? In each episode, a squadron of Fox producers descends on an office, puts the employees in charge of day-to-day operations, and turns on the cameras. “You will all be the boss,” one of the teams is told in an early promo. Cut to a close-up of the furious, disbelieving mug of an employee who looks like he’s just been asked to guillotine his golden retriever.
Much of the show works like this: It turns the concept of self-management into the stuff of nightmare. As the New York Times noted, the program assumes “that what’s wrong with the American workplace is the workers. The problems discussed aren’t about the structure of the company, or the state of its chosen industry and market, or the economy as a whole. Employees are the enemy.” And bosses, by default, the heroes.
All of which would deeply surprise Simon Anderson, the CEO of the web-hosting company DreamHost. “Management is a term to me that feels very twentieth century,” he says. “That 100-year chunk of time when the world was very industrialized, and a company would make something that could be stamped out 10 million times and figured out a way to ship it easily, you needed the hierarchy for that. I think this century is more about building intelligent teams.”
Anderson was one of three finalists for the CEO job at DreamHost in 2011. In choosing their new chief executive, the founders of the company decided to open the floor to an online vote. To make his case, Anderson was trotted in front of a majority of its 100 employees, asked to give a little speech, and answered questions from the crowd. He won narrowly, by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. Anderson told me that he has since spoken to some of the employees who voted against him. “There were no hard feelings,” he said.
DreamHost has a management structure, but workers have the freedom to select their own projects, and the offices, in downtown Los Angeles, are open 24 hours a day.
And there is an increasing number of companies around the country that function similarly. Development at Valve Corporation, a video-game company based near Seattle, is conducted by a network of self-governing teams. Employees choose which team they join and also choose when they’d like to join a new one. Jason Holtman, who until recently worked in business development at Valve, has, in the past, called the setup “an organic gravity well”—the number of people on a project helps determine which games are shipped and which are held for more work.
At W. L. Gore & Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex, there are few titles (almost everyone is referred to as an “associate”), and once a year employees gather to rank their colleagues based on their contributions to the overall success of the company. Those rankings are used by a separate committee of associates to determine pay raises or cuts.
And at IDEO—a sprawling design firm with offices in New York, Mumbai, and London, among other cities—work teams are multidisciplinary and mostly self-governing. Every team opens a project by setting a series of personal and collective goals, reviews its progress midway, and closes the project with a self-analysis session.
This structure—largely flat and very flexible—is especially appealing to those new to the workforce, twentysomethings who tend to approach work differently from their parents. “The way workers are motivated is changing,” says Anderson of DreamHost. “Twenty years ago, it was about higher pay. Now it’s more about finding your work meaningful and interesting.” As more and more millennials enter positions of power in the business world, Anderson believes we will soon reach a point where hierarchy itself is “passé.”
Then there are the employees of Morning Star, a California tomato processor that offers an interesting demographical contrast (its employees are not young creatives). Morning Star annually processes thousands of tons of ripe tomatoes, which are ground down for use in ketchup, pizza sauce, or tomato paste. A little over 2,000 people work for Morning Star at the height of the tomato season. In order to be hired, you first sign something known as a clou, or a Colleague Letter of Understanding. The clou outlines your priorities for the year ahead. If you are a tomato sorter, you pledge to sort a predetermined amount of tomatoes a day for the duration of your stay at Morning Star, and if you are the man who is responsible for helping evaporate the water out of the squishy tomato pulp, then you sign an agreement to evaporate a specific number of gallons of water every week.