Research suggests that only a third of all working people in the United States feel ‘engaged’ in their jobs. We may ask ourselves what large companies can do to improve the ‘Employee Experience’.

Breaking the pyramid: is there a miracle recipe for companies?

Only 32% of the employees at US companies say they feel ‘engaged’ in their work, a recent survey reveals. Even more worrying is the 17.2% of workers who feel ‘actively disengaged’, which means that not only do they show a clear lack of motivation but – even worse –  they are actually counterproductive to the efficient functioning of the firms work for. Time for companies to do something, then?  Twenty-first century employees tend to make a lot of noise about their need for personal fulfilment, their perpetual quest for meaning and desire for autonomy at work. So, what can companies – especially major firms that have been around for several decades and employ thousands of people – do to achieve some progress on this front?

For some, one of the answers lies in the various ways the company can be reorganised. For instance Silicon Valley became infatuated a few years ago with an approach known as ‘holacracy’, an innovative management method which bestows more power on employees. Under this model, unlike the traditional pyramidal management system, employees are organised into small groups of independent workers who take their own decisions. This new organisation is intended to lead to productivity increases and better company performance. 

Holacracy the ideal organisational structure?

The term ‘holacracy’ is derived from ‘holarchy’, a word invented in 1967 by Hungarian-British author and journalist Arthur Koestler in his book ‘The Ghost in the Machine’. He used the word ‘Holarchy’ – based on the Greek words for ‘whole’ and ‘governance’ – to refer to autonomous structures that then report upwards to a higher entity.

The ‘holacracy’ concept was picked up in 2001 by Brian Robertson, then CEO of software publisher Ternary Software, who was looking to introduce a more agile system at his company. Having received encouraging feedback in the media, Robertson founded HolacracyOne in 2007 - a firm that sells ready-made solutions which enable other companies to try out this new organisational model. In 2010, he also published a manifesto entitled ‘The Holacracy Constitution’, which set in stone the basics of holacratic system.

While holacracy cannot of course claim to be a remedy for all of a company’s problems, it nevertheless allows us to get a picture of what the future of work might look like, a sort of ideal to aim for. Major corporations should not however see this as a goal to be achieved overnight, underlined Sabrina Bouraoui, a former partner at HolacracyOne, during a recent panel session on the future of work held at the Parisoma co-working space in San Francisco by the Mangrove community of tech freelancers and entrepreneurs. ‟We’re not talking about a large traditional company moving directly from today’s way of working to tomorrow’s, without any intermediate steps! This is a long process which can start with some quite modest initiatives. For instance, changing the format of weekly meetings so as to make them more dynamic and interactive might be a first step,” she explained.

Refocusing on values to change the DNA

HolacracyOne has some interesting companies among its clientele, such as online shoe vendor Zappos and online publishing platform Medium, two companies that today have come a long way since their startup days. At Zappos, which has many thousands of employees, implementing the Holacracy method has not made for a tranquil change, nor has it been crowned with success. In fact, each reorganisation experience is unique to the firm that goes through it and there seems to be no universal miracle recipe!

Holacracy provides a framework for structuring change within an organisation but this certainly isn’t the only action that needs to be taken, and it doesn’t guarantee success. Changes will remain cosmetic and won’t help to transform the way a company really functions unless there’s a fundamental strategy for creating new DNA that will carry forward the values and missions that the company wants to pursue,” argued Chelsea Robinson from EnspiralItamar Goldminz, Director of People Operations at AltSchool in California, spoke in the same vein. “Companies need to realise that nowadays people associate work with concepts such as self-fulfilment, the achievement of specific objectives, the social impact, and the person’s own emotional attachment to the company goals. And the company also needs to ask itself what mission it wants to pursue and ensure that all its various components are in line with its values,” he told the audience.

A key long-term success factor: don’t lose sight of your employees’ expectations

Some companies really stand out when it comes to reorganisation. Sabrina Bouraoui cited the example of Bridgewater Associates – an investment fund based not far from New York – which decided to place the emphasis on the personal development of its staff. What Bridgewater Associates management calls “radical transparency”, i.e. engendering fluid, transparent communication across the organisation, is one of the driving principles inculcated by the firm’s Chairman and Chief Investment Officer Ray Dalio. “It’s interesting to note that the firm has been voted best Hedge Fund in the United States two years running!” pointed out Sabrina Bouraoui.

However, it is also useful to note that the investment fund’s way of doing things has recently come under severe criticism from some of its own employees, as widely reported in the US press. Among other things, some staff do not appreciate the fact that every meeting is taped, as part of the ‘radical transparency’ that is so fiercely defended by Bridgewater Associates management. The press reported one employee alleging that the firm was “a cauldron of fear and intimidation”.

It remains a fact that changes within companies cannot happen without the approval and the engagement of the staff themselves, who must voluntarily adhere to the values of their employer if they are to apply them effectively on a daily basis.

By Camille Daudet and Pauline Canteneur