By: Michael McQueen
If you had told the manual workers of the previous centuries that one day the average person’s ‘work’ would primarily be conducted from one little device we call a ‘laptop’, they would not have believed you – and they definitely would not have thought of it as ‘work’.
Emeritus Professor Dexter Dunphy predicts that, in the future, the workplace will ‘no longer be defined by an office building but a collection of invisible interactions, aided by technology’. In other words, work will not be a place we ‘go to’ each day but something we do from anywhere at any time.
This trend has already begun. In late 2018, the number of employed people who regularly worked from home had grown by 140 per cent since 2005 – with just over 20 per cent of employees doing so. Over 80 per cent of employees reported that they would like to work remotely at least part time – ideally two to three days a week.
Many companies are gearing up for this trend, with the world’s largest provider of ‘third-space’ work solutions, Regus, taking a leading role. The company uses a card-based system to allow members to occupy workspaces and access services whenever required. In their words, ‘globally there is surging demand for more productive ways of working on the move. Two thirds of professionals work more on the move than they used to. They want to work where, when and how it suits them.’
Sensing opportunity, Regus partnered with Shell a few years ago to launch an innovative new offering: work hubs in petrol stations. While not necessarily everyone’s first choice, the stations are designed to make life easier and more productive for the rising tide of motorists and flexible workers who need to work on the move.
Organisations themselves are also set to change the way they engage with employees. This is most clearly evidenced by a steady move away from a hierarchical and bureaucratic management model. U.S. educator Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap observes: ‘Corporations are increasingly being organised around a very different kind of authority and accountability structure – one that is less hierarchical and more reciprocal and relational.’
Companies such as ING, W.L. Gore, Haier, Nucor, Kyocera, Michelin and Australia’s ANZ Bank are indicative of the organisational architypes that will typify the future.
If there’s one country where you’d expect the modern decentralised leadership ethos to be met with resistance, it would be China. Owing to its centralised Communist paradigm, you could easily imagine the notion of empowering employees throughout an organisation to be a stretch for a Chinese business.
And yet leading Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Haier is in fact a shining example of a decentralised and agile workplace structure.
Invoking Immanuel Kant, Haier’s chairman, Zhang Ruimin, said, ‘We encourage employees to become entrepreneurs because people are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. Our goal is to let everyone become their own CEO – to help everyone fully realise their potential.’
This is more than mere rhetoric. Ruimin has been steadily transforming Haier’s culture into one of genuine empowerment and self-direction over recent years.
Today, Haier’s 40,000 staff are broken up into 2500 microbusinesses or microenterprises, each consisting of no more than 15 people. Each microenterprise has its own profit and loss statement and is accountable to achieve certain success metrics.
In contrast with the prevailing national culture, the entire business only has three leadership levels: CEO, platform team leaders and microenterprise members. The transition to this simple leadership structure did not come without its challenges. Haier lost 10,000 middle managers in the process – some were made redundant, while others struggled to adjust mentally to their diminished authority and opted to leave.
While examples of employee empowerment in the corporate world abound, we’re seeing similar shifts away from a hierarchical model in schools and colleges too.
Kim Farris-Berg and Edward J. Dirkswager look at this trend in the form of ‘Teacher-Powered Schools’. In this increasingly popular model, teachers are held accountable for and autonomous over critical elements of a school’s function, such as the recruitment, dismissal and evaluation of colleagues, the daily schedule of the school, the means of professional development and the formation of school-level policies regarding things like discipline and homework.
While this may sound almost impractical to many educators accustomed to working in large education bureaucracies, there are currently 60 teacher-powered schools operating across the U.S. in 13 states.
Addressing one of the most common concerns about teacher-powered schools, Lori Nazareno reflects: ‘People often wonder how teacher-powered schools operate without a leader. And this is one of the most striking misconceptions about teacher-powered schools. Rather than having ‘no’ leader, teacher-powered schools create an environment where everyone is a leader’ – a sentiment that rings true in their corporate counterparts as well.
There is no doubt that this transition from fixed workplaces and schedules and traditional power hierarchies will not be a seamless one. It will mean acknowledging and addressing many inherent assumptions about what ‘work’ ought to be like and the skills required to succeed in the workplace. However, it does ensure a much more free, autonomous and democratic experience of the activity that takes up the most significant portion of our lives, that is, our jobs.
 2013, ‘It’s (Almost) All About Me’, Deloitte Australia, July.
 2018, ‘Latest Telecommuting Statistics’, Global Workforce Analysis, July.
 2013, ‘It’s (Almost) All About Me’, Deloitte Australia, July.
 Shirley, D. The New Imperatives of Educational Change, Routledge, New York, p. 120.
 Hamel, G. 2016, ‘Want To Bust Bureaucracy? Get Angry’, Management Exchange, 20 December.
 Evers, J. & Kneyber, R. 2016, Flip the System, Routledge, New York, pp. 180, 181.
 Ibid., p. 196.
Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.
About the Author: Michael is an award-winning speaker, social researcher and best-selling author.
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