Looser Structures at Work – and what they mean for you


“Back to School.” For the last four weeks you haven’t been able to go shopping without seeing that dread phrase. And if you’re a parent, you’ll currently be wondering a) how come your children need an entirely new set of school clothes when they only broke up six weeks ago and b) what on earth happened to all those geometry sets, pencil cases and rulers you so carefully stored away in July? Who broke into your house in August and stole them?

Anyway, Dan and Rory are back and from now until Christmas it’s smart blue blazers and blue stripy ties.

Strange, isn’t it? We send our children off to school in ties when – outside of weddings and funerals – the majority of them are unlikely to wear a tie in their working lives…

But school uniform serves a purpose. It masks (apparently) disparities in parents’ incomes and – however cynical teenage pupils may be – it says, ‘we’re part of the school: we share its aims, ideas and values.’

Time was when this carried over into the workplace: when blue blazers and blue stripy ties gave way to dark suit, white shirt, sober tie, black shoes. When an accepted dress code was a way of saying ‘we all work for the same company’ and yes, ‘we’ve bought into its aims, ideas and values.’

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Except that the dress code at work is breaking down. There are exceptions – see this depressing article on investment banking – but work is becoming far less formal, and not just in dress code. Businesses are moving to looser structures – we’re working in smaller teams, working remotely, working flexi-time, working with freelancers in different countries…

Ten years from now, our earnest young man in his dark suit, white shirt etc. is going to be exactly what the majority of businesses don’t want…

But as the old structures become looser and break down, the need for an overview, for someone to pull all the strings together, for – in simple terms – leadership, is greater than it’s ever been.

Who’s going to do that?

You know the answer: once again the buck has landed on your desk.

When I started working in the corporate world we were all – in theory at least – ‘singing from the same hymn sheet.’ Yes, there were problems – this team wasn’t pulling its weight, that line manager was incompetent – but by and large we all knew what we were trying to achieve: more sales, better margins, beat last year…

Today it’s entirely possible that Team A has not the remotest idea what Team B is doing. That freelance guy you’ve just brought in is working on a project and when it’s done he’s off. The line managers? There aren’t any line managers any more…

So the need for the owner/entrepreneur to have a constant overview of the whole business is crucial.

A recurring theme of this blog has been that the leader’s job is to lead. But an increasingly important part of leading is making sure your followers are walking in your footsteps: making sure that everything the employees, teams and freelancers do is pointing in the same direction.

Of course you should delegate: of course you should empower your people – but always within the framework of your overall goals for the business.

That’s a difficult job – and as workplace structures become looser, it’s only going to get more difficult. So it’s absolutely invaluable that your colleagues round the TAB boardroom table have an overview of your business. In fact, because they can’t be involved in the day to day minutiae of your business, an overview – and a knowledge of your goals – is all they have. As far as your business is concerned, they’ll never be wrapped up “in the thick of thin things” as Stephen Covey put it. They’re worth their weight in gold…

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One comment

  1. simonjhudson Hudson · September 12, 2016

    Interesting. I hadn’t considered that the identity and belongingness that uniforms engender (and which I’m broadly in favour of within schools) combined with their rapid erosion at work means that we may have increasing issues with employees feeling part of ‘the team’ (even if the nature of teams has evolved) and subconsciously accepting/acceding to the organisation identity, principles etc.
    In the absence of this we not only need the classic leadership but also even more active sharing of the corporate identity and monitoring of team member behaviour – made more challenging by many team members not being employees.

    We are doing this a bit, inviting our freelancers and partners to events and even all hands team meetings, bit I think there is more to do to compensate for the things we lose as uniforms (esp. suit and tie, etc.) lessen.

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