I’m a fan of Dilbert comics. They make sharp, sometimes painfully accurate observations* about the absurdities of corporate life: the incompetent middle managers, the office politics, the bureaucracy that turns simple requests into kafkaesque ordeals. Judging from the popularity of the comic, bureaucratic corporations with disengaged staff are a pretty common phenomenon.
But the times they are a-changin’ and what is fodder for comedy today is a serious cause of corporate death tomorrow. Esko Kilpi paints a picture of a seismic shift in the way we do business and work in his upcoming book Perspectives to New Work. While the industrial era processes and hierarchies are still here, they are increasingly unsuitable for current business environments.
For me the interesting aspect of this shift is the potential it holds for individual employees.
Employee disengagement has been a big problem for many years. Senior managers know that engaged employees are good for business, yet they have been unable to address the root cause of the problem: lack of autonomy, mastery and purpose**.
Instead we get surveys, initiatives and workshops.
I’m wondering whether this big shift might actually accidentally address the disengagement issue. Kilpi writes:
“Today’s organizations are complex systems that require continuous, responsive coordination to be effective, as we know from the growing number of meetings and internal email. Industrial work today is much less repetitive than before. As a result, job roles cannot be seen as independent and separated. Work instructions can neither be complete descriptions of what needs to be done. Who needs to connect with whom cannot be fully planned in advance or described in a process chart.”
This means that it’s increasingly difficult to give someone a complete list of tasks and say “no need to think, just follow this”. Instead it’s more likely that your day consists of problem solving and exception handling and that you have to continuously learn new things – even if your job would be very process driven. In addition the old “let’s plan till we get it right and then execute” approach is giving away to agile methodology. Everything is in a constant flux. Chances are that your organisation is in a middle of (yet another) change process. Uberisation keeps your executives awake at night.
What has this to do with employee engagement?
If one aspect of disengagement is lack of autonomy then this is exactly what employees should have more of in the new workplace. Not because it’s nice to give people more autonomy, but because it’s a necessity. It’s better to let employees to connect with whoever they need to connect with so they can get their job done. Why would you force someone to only interact with team mates and their line manager if the best expertise for that particular project is outside the team? It’s also better to give people some leeway in figuring out the best way of doing something rather than force them to follow an antiquated process. And finally: it’s better to let individual ability rather than pay grade dictate the contribution (contrary to popular belief a high pay grade doesn’t necessarily make you smarter).
The big bonus in this scenario is what it does to incompetent or power hungry managers: they won’t be able to inflict as much damage to morale as Dilbert’s boss – simply because engaging in power games and micromanaging will be more easily exposed as wasteful activity. People who just want to get stuff done, but are not interested in company politics, can finally breathe more freely when there is no need to play at several levels to get stuff done: the “please the boss level” and the actual work level.
There are already companies that explicitly hiring for this type of work environment. Google for example hires for “emergent leadership” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html?_r=0 ). This is a fancy way of saying that they are looking for self starters who will take the lead when need be – and then step back when the job is done.
In other words leadership is contextual – not just a role that is attached to one specific individual.
Enterprise social networks – new tools for a new era
If employees are expected to show leadership skills then the way we measure performance and reward employees has to change. With the rise of enterprise social networks it might mean that an employee gets assessed on how helpful she is on the network. And the fiction of one person single handedly creating something great and getting rewarded for it will no longer work since there will be a trail of collaborative conversations showing that it was in fact a team effort. Bad news for Dilbertesque managers taking the credit for the inventions of their underlings.
Is it all sunshine and fun in the wonderful world of new work?
Of course not. I worry about people who need a lot of direction in a world that values self starters. And then there’s the question of low-paying gig jobs provided by platform companies like Uber and TaskRabbit (although I think the jury is still very much out whether they are a good or a bad thing).
But if the corporate office theatre that has given rise to Dilbert, The Office and a disengaged workforce is drawing to a close that must be a good thing.
* Many of the stories in Dilbert comics are based on reality. The creator Scott Adams gets a lot of emails from readers with stories about the absurdities of office life. Adams then adapts these stories into comics.