The great search for autonomy: the case of liberated companies

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Over the past few years, managers have grappled with a new form of injunction. Their collaborators would only be as productive as the autonomy and responsibilities they would be granted within the organization they work in. The solution for employees to stay engaged and motivated by their work was not to perfect the famous “Work/life balance” but rather to make work become life, life become work and making it ok to be so. Don’t get it wrong, it’s not so much about hustle culture but rather about liking your workplace enough that you’re as productive as you’d be when you’re comfortably seated at home.

A few years ago, Isaac Getz (a management scholar) coined the term “liberated company” (or f-form company). The liberated companies would be liberated from old hierarchical patterns within the organization, it would free itself from the old Taylorian structure of the work. As a replacement, the liberated company would adopt a more horizontal style of management but essentially focus on three main needs they considered important to fulfil for their employees to be more motivated/ engaged in their work and thus… more productive. Those three needs are translated as three main principles around which the liberated company should form.

 

The organisation must revolve around the idea of intrinsic equality.

Everyone wants a place where they feel equally considered as the other, no one likes to be outranked and their input dismissed because they are not at a certain level of hierarchy. Therefore, everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their seniority or the hierarchical rank.

 

The organisation should put the emphasis on personal development of its staff

All employees want to be able to keep on developing new skills and discover new topics. A collaborator who would see themselves refused the opportunity to develop a new service or try a new tool to better reach their objectives, would be far less likely to propose innovative ideas for the organisation to serve better its purpose.

Therefore, even if someone is hired to do a job for which they’re already skilled enough, the organisation must give the chance to those who want to, to keep on developing new skills and try new projects.

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The organisation should guarantee a possibility of self-management.

Nobody likes to be told what to do and be bossed around. Therefore, the role of manager should not be conceived as a ‘command and control’ position anymore, but rather as a position of strategy, planning and leadership. The nuance is subtle and is sometimes what’s at the root of the critics against liberated companies (we will come to that in a moment).

 

In a nutshell, the liberated company is promoted by people believing the old paradigms of work is over. They insist on the importance of creating enough space for the workers to be motivated, stimulated, and innovative. This space can only be created through self-development, self-management, and equality of treatment for all the employees. The autonomy granted would automatically translate on the overall efficiency and efficacity of the organisation. However, warns Getz, transforming an organisation in a liberated one, would take years, from 5 to 10 before being fully complete.

 

So, you might think, why have not all the companies done that already? It’s such a long process and has such high promises, it’s just about time we start it.

 Well, because the result is not always up to the high promises made. Indeed, the case of liberated companies have created quite an important debate amongst HR or Management specialists. Mainly, liberated companies would be a smoke screen to hide a toxic extra-productivity culture within a company. Some also point out the fact that arguing no hierarchy exists between all the employees is (perhaps counter-intuitively) eventually serving the interest of … The hierarchy. Indeed, whilst in more classical types of structure, management levels are at the “command and control” position, they’re also the one responsible and accountable when something goes sideways. Claiming no hierarchy exists would then allow them to alleviate the burden of accountability on their employees while keeping some sort of power over their teams regardless because they still have to show a certain leadership and guide their teams through their strategic choices.

 

And this is where lies the whole paradox of such a structure. Whilst liberated companies claim to free themselves from the old and irrelevant work structures to put the workers at the centre of their structure, they’re eventually highly dependent on the leadership of the managers driving the change. Indeed, if the leaders of the company fully commit to the concept it can yield great results. If the leadership changes or if the managers are not in a position to assert themselves enough to be seen as leaders by their employees, then chances are high the liberated company will, indeed, be a smokescreen. Similarly, and like many other concepts or management school, the concept has to be fully apprehended and applied to work, it cannot be only partially implemented as all the elements are intertwined. In this latter case, the risk is to develop a new jargon and new words (Chief Happiness Officer, instead of Managers or HR specialist, for example) that do not really mean anything and echoing an idea that management skills are not really concrete skills but are rather ‘bullshit jobs’ to use the title of Graeber’s famous book.

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However, and that would be our concluding part and advice for this month, if the concept of liberated companies is not exempt from its share of critics and scepticism, it doesn’t change the fact that the hypotheses on which the concept has been designed are inescapably true. Even more so since the pandemic, managers have come to realise how much autonomy their employees needed and how people were actually slightly more productive when working from home than from the office. People need autonomy and the balance is important to find with the kind of control the manager wants to have. Life-long training is important for the employees and for them to be more innovative. In the same way, finally, in our knowledge economy, strong and rigid hierarchical pyramids do not make sense the same way it did during the industrial era. Of course, we didn’t necessarily need liberated companies to know all of this but they’re a useful reminder and the basis for other reflections on how to improve the organisation’s structure to better address its core mission and goals.

 

This blog was written by Frank Lavadoux and Mathias Delmeire.

 

Do you have questions? Do not hesitate to contact the Negotiation Team at negotiationteam@eipa.eu

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of EIPA.

Tags Negotiation and soft skills