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

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.

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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 Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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