The results are already in: The greater self-management we’re experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic — management of our time, our work and how we do it, and our cognitive energies — is driving employee engagement and productivity to new heights. Even after the pandemic has passed, we should keep many of the changes imposed by COVID lockdowns — and change how work itself happens.
What are these changes? Firstly, we have more control over our work, and we’re doing more of our work in collaboration with team members who are also free to manage more of their own time, energy and work style. Introverts and deep thinkers are no longer working on top of one another in the well-documented “productivity toilets” of cubicles.
People management has lost its excesses and now focuses on what the research says is the most effective management: coaching, encouraging and otherwise staying out of the way — that is, maximum humanity and minimal “management.” Managers have finally become what they should be: coaches on agile teams.
Able to avoid exhausting commutes, to preserve and sustain our cognitive energy with personalized breaks of our own design, to decide when to exercise or eat, and to stay focused on our commitments to team members and customers, large majorities of us (over 70%!) also believe we’re more productive. Most of our managers (at last!) agree with us. We were already hurtling toward an era of greater worker autonomy and freedom, and the resulting bounties of engagement and innovation. A weightless, invisible virus is speeding things up.
So, what are the features of self-management that we should keep even when the pandemic ends? Self-management, in its essence, means three things:
- Workers have greater autonomy and freedom from coercion.
- Teams can do the real work of the organization through catalyzing reciprocal commitments among members.
- Everyone prioritizes workers’ ability to strive for personal, organizational and community innovation and growth.
First, when we’re managing ourselves, we are working more autonomously, exercising more control over our own time, emotional energy and cognitive strategies, with less counterproductive interference from other people telling us not just what our goals are but how we should organize our time, minds and even bodies to achieve them. This interference is the definition of micromanagement, though my colleagues and I prefer the less loaded term “over-management.”
Self-management doesn’t mean no management or accountability. In fact, because greater self-management ideally takes place amid a web of reciprocal commitments to one’s teammates and customers, it achieves greater accountability by intelligently distributing the functions of management.
People who have worked for themselves know the benefits of autonomy to innovation, productivity and customer service. They’re athletes and artists, services professionals and small businesspersons. They’re people who’ve experienced the speed and creativity of a startup or a software team.
Do the failures of over-management matter to organizations? You bet they do: Managers account for a breathtaking “70% of variance in employee engagement,” according to Gallup, which means they’re the main difference between a great job and misery — at work and in life. They’re the primary difference between high productivity or high turnover. Yet in decades of tracking employee engagement, Gallup has found that the proportion of actively and “somewhat” engaged workers has never exceeded about one-third of the workforce.
Engagement is value. As Jim Clifton and Jim Harter point out in their book “It’s the Manager,” disengagement “trickles down to customers, … impacting customer perception of the company, customer satisfaction, and, ultimately, enterprise competitiveness in the marketplace.” When you kill off a person’s engagement, you move him or her further along the continuum toward anxiety and depression. That’s bad news for everyone, from employees and their families to shareholders and society.
Distributed Team-based Management
The second key principle of self-management is that work is performed by teams whose members flourish in networks of reciprocal agreements to one another.
On self-managed teams, hierarchies may not disappear, but managers hold a lighter grip on workers, squeezing out less of the oxygen of autonomy. In a system of distributed management, workers are better able to contribute to teams, which are the furnaces of any organization’s value creation. In fact, the greatest value provided by increased self-management comes from the creative interactions of team members.
In short, greater self-management, like the federalism that empowers state governments, means decentralizing control from managers to teams and individuals. Self-managed teams can solve problems from within rather than from top-down commands. Ask any Navy SEAL whether he or she would prefer to solve new problems on the ground or wait around for relatively uninformed opinions from people at a distance. Teams who self-manage are able to exploit the superior decision-making engines of crowdsourcing, whether it’s a Special Forces unit, a team of synchronized swimmers, or some of the fastest-moving and most successful organizations on earth: technology companies.
Innovation and Human Potential
The third pillar of a self-managed organization is an agreement that workers should spend a fixed portion of their time innovating for and improving their community, their organizations and themselves.
Conventional management is often built around an implicit assumption that human beings lack a natural drive to explore and innovate, which is why so many people change jobs for career growth opportunities. But when employees at all levels aren’t developing, their organizations also calcify. Bureaucracy’s repression of workers’ engaged innovation is the main reason so many organizations today can grow only through acquisitions.
Growth from the inspiration of teams is free. Though the goal of serving shareholders doesn’t scale, worker motivation and agile change do. Greater self-management taps human nature more effectively. It’s the unmatched power of intrinsic motivations like love, growth and the desire to serve others that drives most innovation.
It is human nature to strive, to pursue engagement with the world, with ideas, with others. Just as a thoroughbred can’t stay cooped up in its stall without suffering psychological damage, human beings can’t be restrained from purpose and meaning without being cut off from all that makes them flourish and innovate. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t ever been locked down during a pandemic.
The purpose of business has long been simply to create shareholder return, but now we know that this goal isn’t the future of work. Does the future of work lie in Peter Drucker’s even better idea, that the purpose of business is to create customers? Jeff Bezos ran with this idea and created a world-beating behemoth.
The research on the last century’s misadventures in management shows us that even making customers isn’t the endgame. Here is how the science tells us work actually works: Happy workers (the start of it all) make happy customers. Happy customers make happy shareholders. Full stop.
So, let’s pay close attention to what we can learn from the successes and satisfactions that emerge from the lighter management of lockdown. Those lessons may make us all better off.