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For the company of the future, leading by fear is dead

Workplace hierarchies are being flattened, and the notion of leading by fear is dead.

John Foxx/Getty Images

Over the past 20, 50 and 100 years, organizations have been heavily modelled after the military. A few people at the top had access to all the information and made decisions, employees gathered at a central headquarters on a set schedule, and everyone was expected to "shut up and do their jobs."

It's no wonder then that synonyms for "work" include words such as drudgery, toil or daily grind. The same goes for "employee," which brings up synonyms such as servant, slave and cog. Finally "manager" brings up synonyms such as slave driver, boss and zookeeper.

This is how organizations have been constructed from the ground up, with these "ideas" ingrained in them: An employee is seen as a cog, work is seen as drudgery and managers as slave drivers. It should come as no surprise that many workers operate essentially as zombies who are disengaged from work.

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Now, however, things are changing. The behaviours and technologies that are we seeing in our personal lives are entering our organizations and this is causing a big shift in the future of work. Employees now have a voice, information is being shared, we can "connect to work," hierarchies are being flattened, and the notion of leading by fear is dead. Many organizations today are now having to go against the traditional grain to shatter traditional conceptions of what it means to "work."

So, what would it look like if we had to build a new global organization from the ground up today?

Would we need company-owned offices and a central headquarters?

Many organizations today are heavily invested in flexible and mobile work environments which allow employees to work from anywhere, any time and on any device, thus eliminating the need to have many company-owned offices. Several companies have large goals of making 30 to 50 per cent of their entire employee base work either full-time or part-time from home over the next few years. Vancouver-based Telus Corp., one of these companies, is looking at saving millions of dollars every year on retail space costs and thousands of hours every year on commuting time with such a shift. Many companies also exist which allow employees to rent out work spaces, conference rooms or desks as needed on an ad-hoc basis, meaning you can work from anywhere but as soon as you need to get together with your co-workers you can easily have an office space accessible should you need it. Work is no longer a place you need to go, instead the theme of the future is "connect to work" not "go to work."

Would we be using e-mail to communicate?

E-mail used to be the best (and only) way to effectively communicate and collaborate with employees and customers. But today that is far from true. Many of the social and collaborative platforms we use today inside and outside of our companies are starting to become preferred modes of working. Internal collaboration platforms allow employees to reduce their reliance on e-mail to virtually nil, not only that but the functionality, benefits and outcomes of using these technologies is far greater then anything e-mail could ever provide. We can keep our teams aligned, find the people and information we need (ourselves!), and communicate and collaborate in a way that best fits our needs. So, if you were starting a large enterprise from scratch today, would e-mail be the core of how you would communicate and collaborate?

Who would have access to information?

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The traditional model for most organizations always had the managers at the top of the pyramid; only they had access to information. This is how the military operates – commanders delegate and soldiers do as they are told. Today, smart organizations are allowing employees to share and discover information instead of limiting access. The social and collaborative technologies that many companies are using today are designed to allow information to be shared, not limited or restricted. The manager of the future believes and relies on collective intelligence and that can't happen when information is restricted. It's no longer about the few people at the top having information, it's about the few people at the top making sure all the right people have the information.

What would the corporate structure look like?

Again, the traditional model for most companies resembles a pyramid or a tree. The senior managers sit at the top and everyone else cascades down from them. Rarely do we see communication flow from the bottom to the top. Instead senior-level officers interact with other senior-level officers and the same is true for all other roles. Hierarchies in many companies are so strict that I have heard of several instances where managers were upset that an entry-level employee would dare speak to them without going up the "food chain." Today, smart companies are flattening their hierarchies by allowing anyone to communicate and collaborate with anyone, regardless of seniority. The social and collaborative tools are making this possible.

It appears that if we were to build a large organization from scratch today that it would look quite different from the traditional company. Employees would have flexible work arrangements and wouldn't need to come into an office from 9-to-5 each day. E-mail would not be the main mode of communication and collaboration. Information would be shared and unlocked for employees to access and discover. And the corporate structure would be flattened out and would be less hierarchical. Many companies are still not thinking about this but the good news is that some organizations are already reinventing and evolving themselves. However, the challenge for many of these organizations is that they have to go against many years of "traditional" thinking. It's a long journey that needs to start somewhere.

So if you were to build a company from the ground up today, what would it look like?

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