People

Should we call time on out-of-touch managers in the workplace?

If organisations employ people based on the assumption that they know how to do their job, is there still a role for the hierarchical manager? Arraz Makhzani looks into how organisations might function without managers

Have you ever felt that you spend more time in pointless ‘catch ups’ with your manager talking about work you have already done, rather than spending time doing work that actually needs to be done? Perhaps you are subject to arbitrary rules and deadlines that add very little value to your work performance? Or maybe you are ordered to use resources in such a way that doesn’t make sense in the context of your job?

Feels all too familiar? You are not alone. These frequent complaints in the office have a common source: the out-of-touch manager.

Managers are often seen as planners, organisers and indispensable commanders of the workplace. However, increasingly employees, in particular knowledge workers, are beginning to question the utility of managers, and the active role they play in the workplace.

‘Self-manage with correct motivation coupled with a supportive environment…’

For the majority of workers, they have broad knowledge of what they need to do, how they need to do it and who to speak to if they require something that they do not have. With the correct motivation and a supportive environment, employees can even direct their own development and manage their own projects. These are the people who have the technical expertise to actually do the work; they do not need instructions on how to do the job they have been hired to do. And if people can manage themselves, what place do managers have in an organisation?

Nursing a broken system

Some organisations have already been asking this question, and concluding that actually, they don’t really need managers. One such company is Buurtzorg, a Dutch home care organisation. Like many companies, in the past Buurtzorg employed a range of managers to manage schedules and assign work. This was based on the principle that nurses should only be doing work that requires a nurse, and other, cheaper staff could fill in other duties. This system resulted in patients having a constant stream of different staff members on different days causing a huge amount of patient dissatisfaction.

Buurtzoorg decided that nurses should be able to run the entire healthcare process. There should be no need for different staff to do different jobs for their patients and crucially, no need for a bureaucracy to manage this process. Staff employed to do specific jobs, in theory, are the best informed about how their job needs to be done.

At Buurtzorg, nurses now work in entirely self-managed teams: 10-12 nurses are responsible for the care of 50-60 patients in a neighbourhood, fulfilling the entire range of home care duties. The only bureaucracy that exists is in the form of coaches, who are there to support and solve specific problems raised to them, such as resolving conflicts. A small back office of 50 staff are responsible for administrative work that exists for the entire company comprising over 8,000 nurses.

The value of this new system is in its results. Buurtzoorg has used an average of 40 per cent of the authorised patient care hours to meet patient’s needs (compared to an average of 70 per cent), reduced overheads to 8 per cent of total costs compared to 25 per cent, and have dropped their sick leave and employee turnover to half the average.

Its patient satisfaction has increased to one of the highest ratings in the Netherlands, and employee satisfaction over several years has indicated Buurtzoorg has the most satisfied workforce of any Dutch company with more than 1,000 people.

Assume employees are good

Other organisations have found this approach effective too: FAVI is a French manufacturer specialising in pressure die-casting – it supplies parts for companies in many industries throughout the world, including automotive, water, electrical and aeronautic companies. A series of changes both symbolic and otherwise gave freedom to the employees to do what they liked, as long as it was in the best interests of the company.

The CEO at the time realised that the traditional organisational chart was based on the assumption that employees are bad and need to be forced to act in a way that would benefit the company. He decided to turn this on its head and assume that employees were good and wanted to perform well. The window in the CEO’s office overlooking the factory floor was bricked up, the time-clocking system was removed, all storage areas were unlocked and all departments were dissolved. This was to remove all of the structures that prevented factory workers from working freely.

FAVI now functions as a network of self-managed mini-factories. These focus on one client or one specific product and normally comprises 20-35 operators and an elected leader, who must always be an operator who has been working in the factory for several years. Salaries, holidays, recruitment and so on are all managed within the team and leaders report to clients and operators, but not to anyone else internally.

This network of factories has been found to be highly efficient, adaptive to the needs of the business and more productive than before. After these changes, employee turnover dropped, production time for main products went from 11 days to one day and increased their market share in the European automotive industry.

Why waste money on managers?

If these two very different organisations can achieve all they have without managers, why do most companies spend so much time and money on people to manage others? These and other examples seem to show that rather than making companies run more effectively, managers may actually be impeding progress and inhibiting people who make money for the company from actually doing their jobs. Taking all of this into account, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of the manager in the workplace and maybe start thinking if we need them at all.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork