The Modern Workplace: Flat, Flexible, and Wired Up

Posted by Dave Allen on May 9, 2011
The Modern Workplace: Flat, Flexible, and Wired Up
If you were to transplant an employee from a mid-’90s Silicon Valley startup into the modern workplace, his head might spin. He’d witness videoconferences on Skype, employees sending email through touch-screen smartphones, and people with Bluetooth headsets seemingly babbling to themselves. He’d puzzle at how computers are cruising the Internet at exponentially faster speeds and without the racket of buzzing modems. In terms of technology, we’re light years ahead of where we were two decades ago.

On the other hand, that same fella from the dot-com era may find other elements oddly familiar. Quite a few of the management techniques spawned in Silicon Valley—often viewed as innovative, quirky, or both—have slowly crept into the mainstream American workplace.

This is not to say companies across the board have adopted significantly progressive management styles. However, compared to a decade ago many companies have a markedly diminished sense of hierarchy, open floor plans that rail against cubicle farm isolation, and a culture that is very open in terms of collaboration and idea sharing. Some industries (tech, new media) and specific companies (Zappos, Google, etc.) are especially innovative in terms of management philosophies and workplace culture.

After surveying the landscape of the modern workplace, we found it to be flat, flexible, and wired up. Read on to find out exactly what that means.

The Office is Flat

In medieval times, the king was ruler of all he surveyed. Few decisions were made without his blessing, from dispatching armies to raising the drawbridge. This is an example of vertical management, with a hierarchical reporting structure and central decision-making power. In the modern office, things have become much flatter.

Management hierarchy hasn’t been eradicated. But, in many organizations, decision-making power has been decentralized, with individuals on lower levels of the food chain given more freedom to act independently. A flat structure allows subordinates to be more productive by avoiding decision-making bottlenecks caused by sending every problem up and down the chain of command, and it empowers those working directly on a given project.

Richard Saavedra, professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business & Economics, says that at the start of each semester his students consider the flat organization ideal. “I say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”

The reason for Saavedra’s warning is that while a flat structure sidesteps the mire of micromanagement, a team-based strategy sometimes creates the illusion that every decision will be reached by consensus. This is simply not the case in most businesses. When it comes to making the tough decisions, it becomes clear who’s in charge. A flat structure might help engage workers and build a sense that anyone, from the unpaid intern to a senior manager, can contribute a big idea, but young employees shouldn’t be shocked when their ideas are shot down.

Flat can be a good thing because it’s a message from management that they want to hear suggestions from deeper in the organization, give greater autonomy to worker bees, and are willing to tolerate some “push-back” on their authority. However, in this kind of environment, it’s important for junior employees to realize what points are up for discussion, make their voices heard when appropriate, and know when to back down. Also, with less hands-on management from supervisors, young employees need to self-motivate, find their own solutions, and follow through without being prodded along at every step. For this reason employers prize workers with good interpersonal skills and a high tolerance for uncertainty, says Saavedra. That way your manager can feel confident he can step away and let you run with the ball.

Getting Personal
With the flattening of the workplace has come a shift in the employee/manager dynamic. Increased approachability and availability—the idea that a low-level employee could IM someone several levels above him, or could drop by the CEO’s office unannounced—have blurred the line between who’s a peer and who’s a supervisor.

The erosion of formality in the business world and the deceptive intimacy of social media have added further confusion for new hires. “I think technology, computers, and all those social media sites make us feel like we’re all friends,” says Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. You might think of yourself as on the same level as the bosses you happen to be friendly with, “but you need to think of them as work friends and in a different category.”

You should restrict how you approach colleagues and managers on sites like Facebook. If your Facebook profile is a no-holds-barred view into your personal life, you should think twice about “friending” or accepting friend requests from coworkers.

That kind of vigilance applies to in-person interactions too. Oliver recommends keeping the workplace as professional as possible and using discretion when sharing personal information. Your family, pets, and where you went to college are fine, but hold back on bar-hopping tales until you know you are on firm ground and you can speak in confidence.

Collegiate, familiar work culture alsocan be amplified by changes in the physical structure of the office. The trend now is toward shared open space, with laptop-toting workers plopping down and plugging in wherever they can.

In this environment there’s the constant threat of distraction: As chatter flies, coworkers strain to be heard through bad Skype connections. Plus, there’s a good chance your supervisor may be only a desk or two away. Be mindful that your officemates can overhear your phone calls and your computer screen is there for all to see what you’re “working” on.

Wired Up
You sit down at your desk to check an email and a text message pops up on your BlackBerry. You check that and an instant message comes up on your computer screen. While taking a call on the office’s landline, you have to respond to tweets directed at your company’s Twitter account, and you have multiple requests awaiting response on Facebook and LinkedIn. This is communication in the modern workplace—where you’re always accessible to colleagues, clients, and the world at large through multiple channels.

One result of this tech obsession is distraction. With so many different media and methods of communication to monitor, there’s considerable potential to spend your time on things unrelated, or tangentially related, to your work. It’s equally a case of too much information and a lack of filtration.

To stay afloat, you’ll need to filter and prioritize. Not every message sent through every medium requires an equal response, and if casual conversation over online chat develops into a more serious discussion, it’s best to take that discussion offline and continue it in person—or at least on the tele. And it’s up to you to gauge what tool is best for conveying different kinds of information: Quick questions can be dealt with over IM. Complex problems, especially those in which documentation will be helpful, are often better suited to email. And those sticky interpersonal issues—such as dealing with an office tiff or responding to a reprimand—sometimes call for the nuance you can convey only in person.

Another antidote to the distraction problem is simply unplugging. It’s not as drastic as it sounds: Just a little time spent once a day or once a week with chat and email turned off and the BlackBerry on silent mode—well, it can be a breath of fresh air. It can help you buckle down on a project and maintain your focus.

Flexible: The Workplace, Anyplace

Of course, with the increased prevalence of remote working technologies, it’s possible you may never see your boss or coworkers, much less be in close quarters with them. These technologies include cloud computing tools (such as Google Docs and Salesforce) that keep data stored online and accessible from anywhere, as well as offsite access to servers and email that makes collaboration over distance a snap.

As a result of this high degree of connectivity, many companies are relaxing the requirement that work is done in the workplace. This flexibility could translate into doing conference calls during your commute—safely and legally, please—or sending emails from the beach.

These arrangements enable the kind of work-life balance young employees especially value, though getting your work done without a supervisor watching every move requires a high level of time management and self-management. You’ll need to keep your own tally of where work ends and play begins.

If you worry you’ll miss out on face time with the boss, video conferencing can help fill the gap. Ayelet Baron, vice president of strategy for Cisco Systems Canada Co., has been a teleworker for eight years, and she relies on Cisco’s three-dimensional video conferencing tool, TelePresence, to put her in front of colleagues all over the world. But Baron warns not to be over-seduced by technology because there’s no true substitute for in-person contact when building professional rapport. “No matter what technology you have, it’s about relationships.”

Even if you have a position that doesn’t require you work onsite, you should try to meet your colleagues in person when you can. “Every once in a while, people need to get together,” Baron says. “You still need that trust, and technology doesn’t replace that.”

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