Why we should embrace anarchy in the workplace

Futurice's John Oswald imagines a world where workers are free to dismantle and rebuild processes that can't prove their legitimacy.

by John Oswald
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2018

At first glance, the story of how hundreds of sword-wielding cavalrymen charged into a demonstration in Manchester about workers’ rights has few lessons for modern management. Out this month, Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’ recreates the febrile atmosphere of 1819 when nascent worker demands for political reform - fuelled by the rise of anarchism - clashed with an entrenched Regency elite, leaving 15 dead and 700 injured.

‘Anarchy’ typically connotes violence and lawlessness. But its real definition is free cooperation of free individuals to constantly challenge the status quo and search for ways to make them better. At its heart, true anarchy is a mindset where people are free to question, dismantle and reconstruct from below any institution which cannot prove its legitimacy.

Fast forward to 2019 where entrenched elites at highly inflated pay grades continue to dominate. Despite the rise of ‘flat’ structured companies, the masses have limited scope to challenge in an environment of zero hours contracts and computer-aided micromanagement. Such excesses of modern capitalism may put in context the fact that more than half of employees in the UK say they are unhappy in the workplace. It’s time we took a fresh look at anarchism and ask how it could help us improve engagement at work. Here are three steps that businesses could take:

1. Reframe perceptions of the workplace

To embrace true anarchy and experience the benefits, we need to shift our perception on the workplace. As we get further into automation, augmented intelligence and other technologies there is a real risk that workplaces will be viewed as a collection of resources, functions and tools. How about seeing it as a community of empowered individuals able to self organise, solve problems and carry out work which fulfils the mission of the enterprise? Instead of top-down management, why not allow people much lower down to remodel the structures of control?

2. Look for functional anarchy

How could this work? The continued popularity of cooperatives, which prioritise members over short-term profits, is one possible template. Take Spanish worker cooperative, Mondragon, the tenth largest company in Spain with assets of almost €25 billion. The group’s business model is based on inter-company cooperation, with workers supported and encouraged to play a leading role in developing the group’s environment.

Research has found that by giving workers more autonomy and a direct stake in managing a business, cooperatives actually operate more effectively than regular companies. They are also better able to cope during downturns.

Holacracy - a method of decentralised management and organisational governance - is another example of applied anarchy. Authority and decision-making are allowed to filter down to teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. Online shoe and clothing retailer, Zappos, has famously adopted this approach to eliminate bureaucracy and boost productivity.

3. Take small steps

Maybe adopting the co-operative and holacracy models is a stretch too far for many businesses. But could companies make smaller moves towards embracing anarchy? Take customer centricity. What if we allowed self-forming teams of people from legal, product, marketing, development to come together and figure out the best ways to make specific products or services more ‘customer centric’- with the authority to axe existing processes and approaches which they believe don’t work? I’d argue that this approach replicates the essence of anarchism - dismantling and rebuilding from below.

Alternatively, why not experiment with abolishing fixed ‘jobs’ and hire for particular characteristics and alignment with the company’s mission? After that, people can pick and choose the tasks that they feel they can perform best in the interests of the project or customer. And form coalitions with others they want to work with to achieve it. It’s not crazy - the software company Valve has famously experimented with this.

Towards A Better Capitalism

If we can take the above steps, the end result could be a more productive business with happier teams, and we’d have got there not by micromanaging but by allowing people to freely express what they feel to be the right approach.

True anarchy doesn’t have to be counter-cultural. It can offer ways to address the excesses and issues within current late-stage capitalism, strengthening bonds, fostering creativity and creating value for communities.

So, let’s re-imagine workplaces and allow workers to decide their values and to demonstrate what they are capable of, individually and collectively. A place where they are free to question the legitimacy of policy, procedure and regulation, and together make companies the best they can be. Two hundred years on, that arguably would be honouring the spirit of Peterloo.

John Oswald is global principal at Futurice

Image credit: Trinity Kubassek/Pexels

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