Expect continued union organizing. Again, the strong job market and the desire for more control over their work environment will encourage more attempts to organize. Starbuck stores, Amazon warehouses, community care workers and others have either recently organized or are exploring organizing.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Mary E Bjustrom.
As the second female manager at The Boeing Company, a Fortune 100 Company, to now having over four decades of experience, Mary has worked with teams to radically redesign everything from airplane design & manufacturing processes to urgent care clinic openings to recreation company finances. Mary was invited by the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to create courses for its Corporate Training Program. Now she consults with businesses who want to develop self-managed teams whose members perform at their highest level and love their jobs.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
My life experiences are mainly about breaking barriers. I graduated with a master’s degree in computer science at a time when there were only two graduate programs in the United States. Then I was hired by the University of Wisconsin engineering campus to develop one of the first undergraduate programs in computer science in the nation. It was a joyous time to introduce students to an entirely new field and career opportunity.
After getting an MBA in 1974, I joined The Boeing Company as the second female manager. I was there as the company went through the growing pains of accepting women managers, learning how to provide transparency in hiring and promotion practices, dealing fairly with diversity and many other challenges that come with the traditional top-down management hierarchy.
I was able to explore and appreciate the power of self-managed teams in a start-up that developed a series of urgent care clinics on the west coast just as the industry was taking hold. The power of little or no command-and-control hierarchy carried over to my time with a rapidly growing recreation company with a new idea of creating outdoor resorts for RV campers. It was enormous fun to be on the forefront of new beginnings.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
The top-down management structure for organizing companies has been with us for over 100 years as Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced it in 1910. “Managers think, workers do the heavy lifting.” This may have worked well in the early 1900’s, but the world has changed massively since then. This approach to managing companies has not changed. In fact, we have doubled down with productivity scores, tracking systems, scoreboards.
Being faced with employee engagement as low as 16%, turnover as high as 80–90%, increasing health costs, and more, many approaches have been created to reverse these trends. Companies have tried employee perks, recognition awards, management by “walking around” and other creative ideas to raise employee satisfaction.
Culturally we have created a management system that reveres the status and privilege that comes with top management positions. If you have it, you do not want to give it up. If you don’t have it, you strive for it. It is and will be very difficult for most companies to embrace an entirely different approach in which employees will feel safe and engaged at work.
However, a growing movement with an entirely new way to manage a business is taking place. Right now, it takes a major business crisis or a visionary leader to embrace this change. But I predict that this will turn into a major movement over the next 10–15 years. These companies are outpacing their competitors and thus becoming dominant in their industries. They are agile, innovative and show rapid consistent growth.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Change is happening so rapidly that companies need to be agile and innovative to survive. The top-down hierarchy of management keeps decisions with people who are not close to the change and certainly constricts rapid response to new business challenges.
To future-proof your organization top management needs be ready for a new way to work, a way to empower those around them, a way to engage the energy and creativity of all employees rather than trying to do it all themselves. What if a business could spark ideas from 20, 50, 100 or several thousand, based on their size!
People want to feel safe, trusted, and respected. They want to be in control of their work lives just like they are with their home lives. This can be accomplished through self-managing teams. The teams are 5–15 people. They decide where, when and how they will work. They create a safe place where they can try, fail, and try again.
The teams learn tools for collaborating, holding one another accountable and developing an environment of inclusion and belonging. As the teams mature, they take on more responsibility such as recruiting, financial decisions, and other responsibilities formerly the purview of management.
Managers become coaches and advisors. They refrain from giving orders or answers. Their advice may not be followed. This is a role for a former manager who enjoys watching and helping people develop and grow.
People will achieve their highest and best work not when you manage them, but rather when you empower them to manage themselves.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
The biggest gap is that employers do not want to give up the status, power, and control that comes with management positions. By keeping decision-making in their own ranks, they erode trust, diminish critical thinking, and overlook the unrealized potential of their employees.
Employees want safety, trust, transparency, and respect. Employees want a sense of control over where, when, and how they work. The recent interest in the protection of unions comes from seeing unions as one of the few opportunities to gain at least some of that control.
The multiple methods that companies have embraced to provide a better work environment have not worked to address the drop in employee engagement and high turnover. It is going to take a paradigm shift away from command-and-control management.
Almost 8% of businesses, worldwide, have chosen to terminate the top-down management hierarchy. These businesses empower self-managed teams. As high trust organizations they are 11 times more innovative and achieve 6 times higher performance.
For an existing company to embrace this shift it may take a major crisis to propel management to try something so uncomfortable and new. Sometimes it just takes a visionary leader who can see the potential and is willing to create this opportunity for change.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
This experience has galvanized a lot of employees who found they could be more productive and could manage when and how they did their work. The pressure from these employees has caused management of many companies to embrace the change or at least compromise with a hybrid working environment.
This provided employees an opportunity to reduce the stress of commuting and increase their flexibility in managing a work-life balance. It was intoxicating to many.
It also gave managers insight into alternate workplace solutions which they formerly feared. This helped build trust that employees did not need hour by hour, day by day oversight.
These insights for both management and employees will lead to pressure for more change and autonomy in the workplace. As success with these changes occurs, the hope is that company leaders will become more open to treating employees like adults who can manage themselves.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
Society tends to shift after new disruption appears. The hard part of change is that some services and products become obsolete or dramatically altered. Cars replaced buggies and buggy whips, the iPod changed how we access music, Airbnb challenged hotel pricing and services, Uber and Lyft challenged the taxi industry. In each case old jobs disappeared, and new jobs were created.
The biggest hurdles for society, as we move to self-managed teams are two-fold. First, we will learn that we don’t need all those powerful managers and we no longer need to put them on a pedestal. Businesses will be successful because all employees are playing a part in the decision-making. This means that coaching, teaching, and advising will be the critical roles to help teams develop and mature.
Secondly, we will learn to recognize the unrealized potential of all participants in the workplace, whether they be factory workers, restaurant workers, cashiers, drivers, teachers, professionals, and many others. We will see ideas for innovative products and recognition of new opportunities come from the janitor, the nursing aide, the road worker, and others. This is the unrecognized potential we are missing.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
My greatest optimism regarding the future of work is that we are making a significant dent in the long unchanged top-down management structure of businesses. With almost 8% of all companies worldwide embracing autonomous self-managed teams and the success they are showing, it is only a matter of time before this will reach a tipping point for exponential change.
In 97% of the businesses operating without managers there is unparalleled growth and ownership. Turnover rates are as low as 3%. They are significantly outperforming their competitors. They are disrupting their industries.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
When control and decision-making are placed in the hands of the people doing the work, team participants are managing their workloads, determining where and when they work and still growing their companies. This increased participation is leading to improved work-life balance, reduction in stress, and pleasure in work. Team members provide a supportive environment and a sense of belonging.
The greatest contributors to mental health and physical health problems have been stress, job insecurity and lack of control over the work environment. Companies operating with self-managed teams have removed these stressors and show significant reduction in health problems and health costs. Extremely low turnover rates demonstrate the success of increased mental health and wellbeing.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
There is no piecemeal solution to “The Great Resignation” et al. Employee engagement globally is at 16% and trust in management is at 22% in France and 18% in Japan. Employees do not feel valued, supported, or respected. Decisions are not open or transparent. Globally 56% believe that their business leaders mislead or say things that are false or greatly exaggerated.
We have tried employee benefits, perks such as free lunches, game rooms, and nap rooms with cushy recliners. We have tried employee recognition awards and health incentives. None of it is working.
But companies that have transitioned away from traditional management hierarchy and moved to self-managed teams are experiencing great success in retaining employees and showing high engagement. Decisions are made by the teams with transparency and openness.
The teams have clear agreements on how they are going to work together. These agreements are explicit, recorded, shared, and reviewed. They are created by the team members. The teams have no manager but do have access to a coach.
This is the way we reverse “The Great Resignation”.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Expect more strikes. During the pandemic employees had time to sit and think about their working conditions and are deciding that they want to be treated better. This goes beyond pay to work schedules and other work concerns. There will be more conflicts and contract rejections. With the strong job market, workers are more confident. We have already seen strikes by hospital nurses in New York City and a barely averted strike by the four freight-rail unions in November. Major contracts are up in 2023 with the United Auto Workers, Teamsters and The Writers Guild.
- Expect continued union organizing. Again, the strong job market and the desire for more control over their work environment will encourage more attempts to organize. Starbuck stores, Amazon warehouses, community care workers and others have either recently organized or are exploring organizing.
- Expect More experimenting with remote work and hybrid work models. Workers will continue to press for more choices about where and when to work. Many workers found remote work much more productive, allowing them to manage children and aging parents with greater flexibility and less stress. Businesses will continue to get pressure to allow remote work as technology for collaboration continues to grow and improve. As the cost benefits of productivity, less office space, and lower absenteeism become apparent, management will start to build trust in remote working and release the need to micro-manage.
- Some start-ups and small fast-growing companies will embrace self-managed teams from the beginning as have other successful companies. Following are some examples: W. L. Gore founded his company in 1958 allowing employees to choose the teams with whom they wanted to work and providing full autonomy to those teams. They have grown to 11,000 employees. Morning Star founded in 1990 now has 4000 employees. Other companies around the globe are Buurtzorg founded in 2006, now with 15,000 employees in 25 countries with only 50 managers stationed in the Netherlands. Neosoft was founded in 2006 in Mexico and now has 450 employees. Visi founded in 2010, has 40 employees in the Netherlands.
- Existing companies will transition to self-managed teams to survive a major crisis in product, costs, competition, or the economy. Companies that have made this journey are both large and small. Their success will inspire other companies in crisis that survival is possible with results well beyond what they can imagine. Haier, in China, was founded in 1920, but was experiencing a dire crisis in the early 1980’s. The manager they sent in to solve the problem overturned the ruthless command-and-control hierarchy and over a decade moved the company to team autonomy and collaboration. Today it is the world’s number one appliance manufacturer with 80,000 employees. The company structure is composed of thousands of tiny autonomous microenterprises, each with its own profit and loss statement.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
“I think everyone should set their own salaries. We have eliminated rules, cut the bureaucracy, tried to make the company transparent, to let our people be free… Is this really such a big step?” — Paulo Pereira, Coordinator at SEMCO Partners, Brazil.
The idea was so radical that I had to put down the account that I was reading to let it sink in. Brilliant, I thought. Scary. Surely such a system would be abused.
It has become my favorite quote because it demonstrates how traditional management assumes the worst. We don’t trust our colleagues. We try to keep sensitive information like salaries, performance reviews, and the criteria used in a vault, under lock and key. But most things are possible if you can imagine them.
Now there are several creative salary setting systems developed by companies with self-managed teams. The systems are open and transparent. If the teams do not like the results, they have the prerogative to suggest changing the system by forming a team to evaluate alternatives.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to spend time with #Ricardo Semler of SEMCO Partners in Brazil. He first empowered factory workers to determine when, where and how they would work. He formed a small group around him that constantly questioned traditional management practices. He was innovative and open, as was his team. During his tenure SEMCO grew from $4 million in sales to $212 million. The company grew at 40% year after year. Employee retention reached 98%. No one wants to leave.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Further discussion would be delightful. My email address is [email protected]
My Linkedin profile is https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-bjustrom-243270/
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.