Does the future of work lie in workplace communities?

We continue to use the same structures and organise work in the same way as we have for decades, but is there a more effective way to benefit from our collective intelligence? Ian Gee and Matthew Hanwell find out.

The way in which we organise work has pretty much remained unchanged for more than 100 years, despite the transformation that we are all experiencing and the fact that we are now in a knowledge-based digital age.

Work is still organised largely by hierarchy and department, much as it was in the early industrial era. Employers continue to use these structures automatically by default, without thinking or considering what other options might be available.

What if we stop and think, pause to consider how we might accomplish our objectives in another way, and think about how we might be able to tap into more of the collective intelligence available both inside and outside of our organisations?

Working without limits

It makes sense to use hierarchy to organise repeatable work, such as payroll or compliance services, because these are areas of business that rely on certainty and predictability. They are also typically repetitive activities where any variation needs to be carefully planned, tightly controlled, monitored and recorded.

However, organising work in hierarchy limits creativity, innovation and the opportunity for the unexpected, and more than 75% of the work of most organisations does not require hierarchy as the dominant organisation form.

Hierarchy may be sufficient to get the job done, but it may not be necessary. By making hierarchy our “default choice”, intentionally or otherwise, we limit the possibility of achieving better outcomes and results, and raising the engagement of employees.

Seeking alternatives

Many academics, management gurus and operational development practitioners have, in the last few years, been calling for a review of how we organise the way we work.

They have been looking for alternative ways of organising that will unleash the holy grail of employee engagement, increase discretionary effort and create organisations where people feel able to work to the best of their capabilities.

This has included exploring how to make project management more agile and lean, introducing ideas about matrix organisations and even exploring “intrapreneurship”, which aims to bring into the workplace the kind of culture and work practices that are present in start-ups.

One way of working that is under-explored and underused is that of the workplace community.

Workplace communities

By workplace communities, we mean a structured and planned way by which people have the opportunity to contribute and work outside of the traditional hierarchy, silos and matrices that exist within the organisation. Engaging with each other in very different ways can create extraordinary results for the business.

In our experience, most organisations are laced with communities, however, these mainly remain small, often invisible and hampered by a lack of explicit support and licence.

In the increasingly knowledge-based economy, our knowledge, thoughts, ideas, creativity, innovation and our willingness to share and collaborate are critical for creating value for organisations and the individuals who work for them.

Workplace communities provide a way to tap into this collective intelligence, engage people in a common sense of purpose and provide the opportunity for unleashing intrapreneurship across the organisation.

Break down barriers

Imagine a workplace where people are not bound by departmental barriers, a place where employees feel a commitment to the whole organisation and not just their department.

Here, we have employees who see the organisation “in the round” and feel that their contribution makes a difference, despite this not being part of their job description, or annual tasks and targets.

This is the kind of workplace where people feel such a strong sense of community that being a partisan is not an option.

We believe that workplace communities, if implemented with diligence and care, can unleash latent talent, capability and capacity in the organisation, and in doing so have a positive affect on business results and employee engagement.

We are increasingly living and working in a multi-generational, digital, knowledge-based, global workplace, enabled by the internet and social media.

Not only do we believe that the current workforce is looking for new ways of working and achieving, but we also know, from our research, that the generations entering the workplace, Gen Y or the Net Gen (“Gen Z”), are looking for a different relationship between them and their work, one that is not bound by the traditions of those that have gone before them.

They have grown up with the web and associated technology and are expecting to experience the kind of freedoms, connections and opportunities for both business and personal achievement that is available in all other aspects of their lives.

Strike a bargain

Workplace communities do not come about by accident, they require intentionality.

You need to establish a clear understanding of what you are aiming to do, developing both a “plausible promise” and what the “bargain” is for both employees and the organisation as a whole.

You need to develop an initiation plan, as well as review what current communication and collaboration tools and technology you have available.

You also need to understand the stages that a workplace community goes through, what to do if it gets stuck and how to measure its effectiveness.

Workplace communities are not the “holy grail” of work organisation, but we believe that by starting to utilise them you will shift your thinking and that of your employees.

In doing so, this will provide you with the opportunity to take a fresh look at how work is undertaken and the opportunity to create the “future of work” in your own organisation.


About Ian Gee and Matthew Hanwell

Ian Gee and Matthew Hanwell are the co-authors of “The workplace community: A guide to releasing human potential and engaging employees”. Find out more about the book here.

3 Responses to Does the future of work lie in workplace communities?

  1. Avatar
    alan 28 Nov 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    Looks like a welcome stimulus for getting people to think differently in a rapidly changing world of work , well done

  2. Avatar
    Jose santiago 7 Dec 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    well, this is exactly what happens in some R&D departments, and I guess in colleagues, but not very easily replicated in stress and deadline focused businesses. however some attempts have been make like in the HR function where the roles have been segregated so that we have operations and people facing where they sit with engineers, finance, sales, etc colleagues and work at resolving issues together, while the specialists sit and do analysis and others process.
    not ideal and not quite what you are referring too but it’s the first move. the biggest advances can be in your layout of work and location with open and shared spaces, and systems that allow one to dip into events, information and issues without needing to be a functional part. managers muddle so we need to be leaders and accept that leading is always temporary while the muddling manager needs to become the facilitator and lose the hierarchical needs of the role.
    this sharing and role changes I think are the hardest fir people to deal with and to succeed it requires a lot of thought and time to aperceive in order to move to the changed state.

  3. Avatar
    Bruno Gebarski 23 Dec 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    Thank you for your article where lots of issues are being raised: I would have preferred you tackling one and giving concrete examples of how to solve them — because many of us in Change Management | cultural issues know about — may be in ulterior posts I hope.

    Where do you get the

    “more than 75% of the work of most organisations does not require hierarchy as the dominant organisation form”,

    statistic, which I think is the key statement of your article. I would appreciate having the name and source of the study: thank you.