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The Boss Stops Here

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Except it wasn’t, not really. Instead it was an action that had been driven in large part by an individual—Haskins. I was reminded of the control group of chickens referenced in Galinsky & Co.’s “The Path to Glory Is Paved With Hierarchy.” Some of them were prolific egg producers and some of them were low-level layers, but together, in a mixed-power group, they formed a nice symphony of egg production. Perhaps Galinsky was right that as animals, we do naturally slot ourselves into some sort of hierarchy. Certainly I was seeing something similar now: However ostensibly egalitarian this Menlo work team was, in practice, a leader had quickly emerged, and everyone else was falling in line.

A few weeks after my visit to Ann Arbor, during a conversation with Tom Preston-Werner of GitHub—itself a mostly horizontal company—I happened to use the word flat. He stopped me. “With people, there are always senses of authority and matters of seniority and so many other social factors at play,” he said. “You’re fooling yourself if you think a group bigger than a single person can ever really be flat.” But the people at companies like Menlo or GitHub or Morning Star don’t seem to care. Instead, it’s possible that the triumph of the flattened office may be the creation of work environments in which leaders organically arise, and all employees feel a sense of ownership, whether real or imagined.

Jason Holtman, formerly of Valve, has said that the big negative of going bossless is the loss of the “quick mandate”—the ability to swiftly and effectively mobilize the organization. A management structure may be democratic, and thus empowering to the workers, but that does not mean it is neat, nor particularly fast.

That kickoff meeting for that biotech firm was long—it started at 11 a.m. and went until almost two in the afternoon, with a break in between—and by the midway mark, the proceedings were moving a little more slowly, with more exasperated sighs, or slight but conspicuous head shakes, and sometimes everyone seemed to be talking simultaneously, in one big, warbly squawk.

Kealy Opelt, leaning forward, attempted to wrestle the proceedings back on track.

“So where were we?” she’d say. Or: “I didn’t hear that, Jeff. Could you repeat it for everyone?” Or: “One at a time, please.”

Later, I asked her if she’d been frustrated.

“Look,” she said, “we don’t want people having their arms all crossed and not saying anything, with this brooding idea they haven’t shared with anybody. That would be worse. But yeah, it can get chaotic.”

Chaotic, noisy, somewhat lumbering—Menlo may be all those things, but it is also a profitable company. Revenue in 2012 was about $4 million, and employee retention rates are notably high. As the organization has grown its client list, it has expanded the number of programmers it keeps on staff, and when the company posts an advertisement for an open gig, a flood of applications typically pours in. Around Ann Arbor, Menlo Innovations is considered an extremely desirable place to work.

Not that it’s an easy place to work. More than one employee told me that it took them some time to get used to the peculiar demands of the office—the lack of doors, the lack of privacy, the constant and sometimes exhausting presence of the rest of the staff.

To help relieve some of that pressure, “walkies” were introduced several years ago. A “walkie” is exactly what it sounds like—a ten-minute group walk around the block. The daily ritual is intended to allow the basement-bound Menlonians a chance to unwind and to see the sun. On one walkie, I found myself between two Menlo employees, Natalie Svaan and Jack Coy. They could not be more unalike. Svaan, a Michigan native with silver-streaked black hair, came to Menlo after a career in IT. Coy is still in college; he works at Menlo part time.

“I remember when I first got hired, I was so wiped out,” Svaan was saying. “I’d just come home and collapse. But you know, it’s strange; it’s gotten to be energizing. The hours do actually fly right by, probably because you’re always working.”

“And there’s the team thing,” Coy added. “It’s part of your task to make the team succeed and to help other people do their jobs. It’s not to promote oneself at the expense of the rest of the team. I like that.”

He shook his head. “I think there are actually people,” he added, in a tone of deep and abiding wonder, “who want to just go to work, be told what to do, do it, and go home.”


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