HR Management, HR News & Trends

The Bossless Office Trend: Don’t Be Surprised If It Doesn’t Last Long

No-Boss

As much as I consider it a source of great information, there are also times when I scratch my head and laugh out loud while reading The Wall Street Journal.

Usually, it’s when I bump into stories so odd or so far off the beaten path that they seem like an old Monty Python sketch.

Most of the stories I’m talking about are focused on some sort of workplace “trend” that The Journal has bumped into, and that they present with all the vigor of a supermarket tabloid that’s discovered the latest on the dating habits of a Kardashian.

So, here’s the latest workplace “trend” from The Wall Street Journal: The “bossless” office.

A trend, or just a workplace quirk?

As the great Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry is fond of saying, I am not making this up.

The Journal story focuses primarily on a company called Valve Corp., a video game maker in Bellevue, Wash. (close enough to Lance Haun that he could check it out). Rather than taking Valve Corp for what it is — a quirky company that has a quirky way of management that wouldn’t work in 98 percent of the business world — The Journal story makes one believe that a “bossless office” is some sort of larger workforce trend that is actually a viable way of doing business.

I’m all for doing things differently and trying new approaches, but is the “bossless office” really a trend, or the mark of a company that wants to be contrary for the sake of being contrary?

Here’s the gist of it, from The WSJ:

Valve, whose website says the company has been “boss free” since its founding in 1996, also has no managers or assigned projects. Instead, its 300 employees recruit colleagues to work on projects they think are worthwhile. The company prizes mobility so much that workers’ desks are mounted on wheels, allowing them to scoot around to form work areas as they choose.

Welcome to the bossless company, where the hierarchy is flat, pay is often determined by peers, and the workday is directed by employees themselves.”

Isn’t this just a Monty Python skit?

Wait a minute; I’ve heard of this some place before. Oh yeah, the great British comedy group Monty Python did a bit about it in their movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here’s a clip of it to refresh your memory:

The Journal ties this “trend” to the overall flattening of management structures that have been going on for quite some time and that accelerated during the recession when so many organization’s got rid of large chunk’s of middle management. It also gets into how W.L. Gore, the Delaware-based maker of Gore-Tex, has eliminated most (but not all) titles and cut back on the number of bosses.

But, it’s the system at video game-maker Valve that has caught The Journal’s eye and seems to be, well, the product of a Monty Python skit.

At Valve, there are no promotions, only new projects. To help decide pay, employees rank their peers — but not themselves—voting on who they think creates the most value. The company declined to provide information about how much salaries vary.

Any employee can participate in hiring decisions, which are usually made by teams. Firings, while relatively rare, work the same way: teams decide together if someone isn’t working out.”

All of this sounds wonderful in the same way that communism sounds wonderful if you simply remove the human element from the philosophy. Problem is, humans don’t usually make group decisions all that well. Someone — anyone — needs to be the final arbiter if you ever want to get something decided and keep things moving ahead.

Yes, there are some downsides to “bossless offices”

And as The WSJ notes 13 paragraphs into their story:

Hiring highly motivated workers is vital to making a boss-free system work. And it isn’t for everyone. Most employees take anywhere from six months to a year to adapt, though some leave for more traditional settings, says (Greg) Coomer, (a 16-year veteran of Valve who works on product design).

The system has its downsides. Without traditional managers, it can be harder to catch poor performers. Even the employee handbook, a packet that explains Valve’s philosophy and processes, notes that bad hiring decisions “can sometimes go unchecked for too long.”

As is typical with one of these wonderful “trend” stories that The Wall Street Journal seems to frequently find and blow all out of proportion, it seems heavily weighted to the pros of this “bossless office” philosophy and curiously shy on the downsides that surely exist.

As a long-time manager who has seen it done just about every way possible (I even survived a nutty management structure called the “newspaper without walls), I’ll grant you two things here:

  1. The world, and most companies, can get along with a lot fewer managers; and,
  2. The “bossless office” is a management oddity that may work for a company here and there, but is impractical for most organizations, where a bossless environment would soon turn into a corporate version of Lord of the Flies.

Yes, the notion of a “bossless office” is a great trend story, but count me as unconvinced that it actually works in all but a handful of odd places. As quickly as the world is changing, I somehow doubt that it is changing so fast that we can eliminate having people in charge.

It’s a fun to talk about concept, but I think it probably would have driven someone like the late, great Steve Jobs a little bit crazy. Somehow, I don’t think he could have built Apple to what it is today without any bosses — mainly, him — being in charge.

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at john@tlnt.com, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/johnhollon.
  • Howard Risher

    John, I agree that a truly bossless office will not be successful in the long run but have played a role in planning and getting off the ground self managed work teams.  They can work great.

    In one situation years ago an employee literally thanked god for the oppoertunity to work in the plant.  Another stated firmly they would ‘never allow a union to screw this up.’

    There is a  need for leadership and the teams need someone to report to — but  I am convinced we do not need the usual levels of management.

    The savings go directly to the bottom line.

    • John Hollon

      Howard: I agree with you completely. We clearly don’t need so many layers of management, and self-directed teams can work and work well. 

      My point was about the notion of a workplace that can function without any boss or specific leadership at all. I can’t see that working except in all but the most extreme situations, and only for a handful of companies.

      That The Wall Street Journal would take an oddity such as that and make it sound like some hot new business trend is, well, as silly as a Monty Python skit — but not nearly as funny or entertaining.

  • JerryKraut

    Just reading The Idea Factory about Bell Labs. They had strong, powerful, even intimidating bosses like Kelly who knew exactly who to leave alone and let play with their ideas (e.g., Shannon). Some people need strong bosses. Others need no bosses, do not want to manage other people or rise up any career ladders (Shannon, again). Oftentimes, it is those people who transform the world (Shannon was the father of information theory and consequently IT as we know it, today, in case you should not know). Shannon had almost complete jester’s license. He was nothing short of a genius. His colleague Pierce, almost as genial as an instigator seeding new projects, had two heros at Bell Labs: Shannon and Kelly. He remarked that freedom is good but too much freedom may be too much of a good thing. There needs to be focus, as well. That’s what bosses are for in R&D. They have to provide the framework and umbrella strategies but must not meddle in the affairs of people like Shannon once they have shown to have understood what the enterprise is all about.

  • davekees

    Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco, is famous for not being a “boss” and creating a truly democratic environment for his employees where lead themselves. He has the simple idea that his employees are adults and he has the simple idea that as adults he can trust them and this has worked for his companies for a long time.He grew his company from 100 employees to 3000 with a 1% turnover rate. He explains this in his book Maverick and The Seven-Day Weekend and you can hear him explain it in his presentation at MIT.
    http://video.mit.edu/watch/leading-by-omission-9965/

    I don’t think it is fair to compare this style of management to Steve Jobs or to Bell Labs. Most companies will never be Apple or Bell and companies don’t really need to be them. After Steve Jobs autobiography came out, many people decided they did not want to be Steve Jobs.

    People like Ricardo Semler are doing something right.