Inside The 'Bossless' Office, Where The Team Takes Charge

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on October 8, 2013 2:44 pm

Cubicle culture can be so confining that it's become a cliche. A line from the cult film classic Office Space sums it up: "I have eight different bosses right now," grouses bleary-eyed tech company employee Peter Gibbons. "So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation. It's not to be hassled."

Today, the hierarchical hassles of the modern workplace are starting to fade, with a cultural move toward flat or "bossless" offices. In downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., the software company Menlo Innovations takes the flat office to its extreme — at Menlo, there are two co-founders and a CEO, but the team takes charge of budgeting, hiring, firing and making decisions on how to serve the company's clients.

"If you look at a baseball team in the field, no one would say, hey who does the pitcher report to, who does the catcher report to? People who really understand baseball would say, well, they have a role to play but their real purpose is to win the game. To be on the field with each other and trust each other to know how to play," says Rich Sheridan, who co-founded Menlo in 2002 and is the company's CEO.

The bossless atmosphere is reflected in the office layout. Menlo is headquartered just blocks away from the University of Michigan in 17,000 square feet of bright, open space. It's so open that the company's 50 employees (and a few of their dogs) work at long tables without walls, cubicles or offices. They code and design computer programs, but with a togetherness that makes it look more like a cafeteria lunchroom than a traditional workplace.

"I'm sitting out in the room with everyone else," Sheridan points out. "I get no special treatment; there's no corner office."

That layout is by design. Sheridan says obliterating layers of management can lead to faster decision-making — and more important, motivated and empowered employees. At Menlo, the whole office, or sometimes subcommittees, decide who gets hired and who gets fired. Promotions, raises and budgeting are all decided by the team. The company's emphasis on transparency extends to details like the budget, which is posted on the wall for everyone to see. Email communication is frowned upon in favor of face-to-face talking.

"We've seen more of a trend toward flattening organizations," says Stephen Courtright, a Texas A&M business professor who specializes in studying self-governing offices. He says because the tech industry needs to adapt quickly and competition for the best employees is fierce, giving employees freedom helps them move much faster.

"Those industries are just unstable, rapidly changing, and they are trying to harness creativity and innovation. So it is that speed of the technology environment that has prompted organizations to rethink the way they structure the organization," Courtright says.

But it doesn't fix all problems. The gaming company Valve also boasts of being bossless and has gotten a lot of attention for it. But Jeri Ellsworth, a former programmer at Valve Corp., said her time there "felt a lot like high school."

"What I learned from Valve is that I don't think it works," Ellsworth told The Grey Area podcast and reported in Wired magazine. "I think that if you give complete latitudes with no checks and balances, it's just human nature [employees] are gonna try to minimize the work they have to do and maximize the control they have."

At Menlo, the employees say the culture prevents that. "It really doesn't happen that way," says Menlo developer Eric Schreffler. "And that's partly because of the people who were here from the beginning."

As more companies shift to flatter structures, Courtright says workers should decide what rewards you're seeking at work when making job decisions.

"In a flat organization, moving up the chain of command is not the reward for performing well, because in a flat organization there's not a big chain of command to climb up. Basically the reward in a flat organization is being able to work on new and challenging creative tasks," Courtright says.

And that newness is what keeps Menlo's Lisa Ho coming back.

"We say we're a learning organization, so we're always learning and trying new things, which is very cool," she says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are many cliches about working in an office - endless cubicles, watercooler gossip and overbearing bosses. Some of this was captured vividly in the cult movie classic "Office Space."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OFFICE SPACE")

RON LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) I have eight different bosses right now.

JOHN C. MCGINLEY: (As Bob Slydell) I beg your pardon?

LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Eight bosses.

MCGINLEY: (As Bob Slydell) Eight?

LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation - is not to be hassled.

SIEGEL: That problem, too many bosses, is now getting turned on its head. NPR's Elise Hu reports on bossless offices, where the team makes decisions that were once left to management.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In downtown Ann Arbor, just blocks away from the University of Michigan, you'll find the headquarters of Menlo Innovation.

RICH SHERIDAN: Hey. Nice to meet you. Welcome.

HU: Co-founder and CEO Rich Sheridan started this company more than a decade ago, and he secured this 17,000-square-foot, bright, open space. So open that the software company's 50-some employees - and a few of their dogs - work at long tables without walls, cubicles or offices. They're coding and designing computer programs, but with such a chilled-out togetherness that it looks more like a cafeteria lunchroom than an office. I found CEO Sheridan working right alongside his team of mostly 20-somethings.

SHERIDAN: I'm sitting out in the middle of the room with everybody else. I get no special treatment. There's no corner office.

HU: Except for him, Menlo has no managers or bosses. The CEO isn't even a boss, in the traditional sense.

SHERIDAN: If you look at a baseball team on the field, no one would say hey, who does the pitcher report to; who does the catcher report to? People who really understand baseball would look at you funny and say, well, they have a role to play; they have a specific purpose. But their real purpose is to win the game, to be on the field together and to trust each other enough to know how to play.

HU: At Menlo, the whole team - or sometimes, subcommittees - decide who gets hired and who gets fired. Promotions, raises and budgeting are all decided by the team. The budget's posted on the wall for everyone to see. E-mail communication is frowned upon in favor of face-to-face talking. And today, Menlo developer Eric Schreffler is getting his performance review in the form of a group lunch.

ERIC SCHREFFLER: My programming skills have, in general, increased dramatically.

HU: Since he has no supervisors, eight peers circle around him to offer their feedback. One of them is programmer Kealy Opelt.

KEALY OPELT: What I would want you to improve on is how you convince others to see your idea as a path to go.

HU: The sense of going somewhere together is strong. Every morning...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

HU: ...a dart board alarm sounds to start the staff meeting, which is conducted standing up while pairs of programmers pass around a plastic Viking helmet when they talk. Each of the full-timers and contractors speaks up.

ANNA: I am Anna.

PAULINE: I'm Pauline.

HU: And the whole meeting somehow only takes only 13 minutes. That kind of efficiency is great for a lot of companies wanting to remake themselves, says Texas A&M business professor Stephen Courtright.

STEPHEN COURTRIGHT: We've again seen more of a trend toward flattening organizations.

HU: Courtright specializes in studying self-governing offices. He says since the tech industry needs to adapt quickly, flattening their work structures helps them move much faster.

COURTRIGHT: Those industries are just unstable, rapidly changing; and they are trying to harness creativity and innovation. So it is that speed of that technology environment that has prompted organizations to rethink the way that they structure the organization.

HU: But it doesn't fix all problems.

JERI ELLSWORTH: It feels - felt a lot like high school.

HU: Jeri Ellsworth was a programmer at the gaming company Valve, which also boasts of being bossless. Valve's gotten a lot of attention for its flatness, but Ellsworth told Wired magazine that the lack of bosses is why she left.

ELLSWORTH: What I learned from Valve is, I don't think it works. I think that you give people complete latitudes, with no checks and balances. It's just human nature: They're going to try to minimize the work that they have to do, and maximize the control that they have.

HU: At Menlo, the employees love it.

SCHREFFLER: It really doesn't happen that way, or - and it was - that's partly because of the people who were here in the beginning.

HU: Developer Eric Schreffler, the one who volunteered himself for that feedback lunch, says he's always learning because of the constant communication. Courtright, the business professor, says it all depends on what kinds of rewards you're looking for at work.

COURTRIGHT: In a flat organization, moving up the chain of command is not the reward that you get for performing well. - because in a flat organization, there's not a big chain of command to climb up. Basically, the reward for working in a flat organization is being able to work on new and challenging, creative tasks.

HU: That newness is what keeps Menlo's Lisa Ho coming back.

LISA HO: We say that we're a learning organization. So we're always, like, learning and trying new things, which is really cool.

HU: Trying new things without a boss to look over their shoulders.

Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.