106 Communications

6th Sense

Democracy in action: what does the future of work look like?

March 2015 | Culture, Democratic Workplace, Employee Engagement, Leadership

Recently, I watched a BBC documentary series on life ‘Inside the [House of] Commons’.  It was a fascinating peek into the workplace of our democratic union. And boy was it depressing.

It turns out that our politicians work every day in what has to be one of the least democratic working environments I’ve ever seen. The famous debating chamber is a perfect architectural example of a glorified fighting cage, designed for maximum adversarial combat (albeit verbal rather then physical). Apparently the width between the two sides is precisely the length of two swords – deemed sufficient space to prevent immediate injury! And it works – I found it truly dismaying to witness the baying and jeering that seems part and parcel of democracy in action.

So thank goodness that modern organisations set themselves up differently. Recent political architecture turns our own House of Commons on its head; the German parliament in Berlin, for example, is built in the round – and access to the public is high up above the debating chamber. It’s said that this is to remind politicians every day that the public they serve sit above them and hold the ultimate power.

Corporate workplaces are structuring themselves in more democratic ways too. And not just the small, trendy start-ups like Zappos or UsTwo. W. L. Gore is a global American manufacturing company with more than 10,000 employees. They have just three levels of organisational hierarchy: the CEO, who is elected democratically by all employees to serve a set term; a small number of functional Heads of; and everyone else. All decisions about hiring, pay, projects – all the important stuff for employees – are made by self-managing teams of 8-12 people

Current CEO, Terri Kelly – yes, she’s an actual woman! – believes that “it’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organisation. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.”

How refreshing. And closer to home, there are also examples of successful businesses ‘outsourcing’ tasks to employees which were previously the preserve of leaders. Pret a Manger, for example, hires people only when the whole team agrees the preferred candidate is the right choice.

Structurally, working environments today couldn’t be more different to those from the past; the debating chamber in the House of Commons is a far cry to today’s open-plan offices where leaders often sit amongst colleagues. So it’s great to see working practices modernising too. We have lots of ideas for creating more collaborative work spaces; please get in touch if you’d like to hear more.

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