What are Managers for?
Author Arraz Makhzani  | 

Managers are often seen as planners, organisers and indispensable commanders of the workplace. However, highly skilled employees are often essentially able to manage themselves; is the traditional role of the manager therefore obsolete?

What Are Managers For?
Have you ever felt that you spend more time in pointless “catch ups” to talk about what work you’ve done than you spend actually working? Or perhaps you are given arbitrary rules or deadlines to follow that negatively impact on your work performance while contributing nothing? Or maybe you are ordered to use resources in such a way that makes no sense in the context of your job? Possibly you have experienced project managers who waste your time asking you what they need to do because they don’t have any knowledge of the actual work that needs doing? All of these are common complaints in an office, and all of them have a common source: the manager.

Managers are often seen as planners, organisers and indispensable commanders of the workplace. However, increasingly employees (particularly knowledge workers) are beginning to question the utility of managers, or at least the necessity of their active participation within the workplace. For the majority of workers, they have broad knowledge of what they need to do, how they need to do it and who to speak to if they require something that they do not have. With the correct motivation and a supportive environment, employees can even direct their own development and manage their own projects. These are the people who have the technical expertise to actually do the work; there is no special skill set required for management, so these people are the best placed to manage themselves. If people can manage themselves, why do we need managers?

Some organisations have already been asking this question, and concluding that actually, they don’t really need managers. One such company is Buurtzorg, a Dutch home care organisation. Like many companies, in the past Buurtzorg employed a range of managers to manage schedules and assign work. This was based on the principle that nurses should only be doing work that requires a nurse, and other, cheaper staff could fill in other duties. This system resulted in patients having a constant stream of different staff members on different days, sometimes not even having the same nurse one day to the next. This was found to cause a huge amount of patient dissatisfaction.

Buurtzoorg decided that nurses should be able to run the entire healthcare process. There should be no need for different staff to do different jobs for their patients and crucially, no need for a bureaucracy to manage this process. Staff doing the job are the best informed about how their job needs to be done and how to do it.

At Buurtzorg, nurses now work in entirely self-managed teams: 10-12 nurses are responsible for the care of 50-60 patients in a neighbourhood, fulfilling the entire range of home care duties. The only bureaucracy that exists is in the form of coaches (who are there to support and solve specific problems raised to them, e.g. resolving conflicts) and a small back office of 50 staff for the entire company of over 8,000 nurses (this office is responsible for administrative work like finance).

The results have been impressive: Buurtzoorg has used an average of 40% of the authorised patient care hours to meet patients needs (compared to an average of 70%), reduced overheads to 8% of total costs compared to 25% and have dropped their sick leave and employee turnover to half the average. Their patient satisfaction has increased to one of the highest ratings in the Netherlands, and employee satisfaction over several years has indicated Buurtzoorg has the most satisfied workforce of any Dutch company with more than 1,000 people.

Other organisations have found this approach effective too: FAVI is a French manufacturer specialising in pressure die-casting and supplies parts for companies in many industries throughout the world, including automotive, water, electrical and aeronautic companies. A series of changes both symbolic and otherwise gave freedom to the employees to do what they liked, as long as it was in the best interests of the company. The CEO at the time realised that the traditional organisational chart was based on the assumption that employees are bad and need to be forced to act in a way that would benefit the company. He decided to turn this on its head and assume that employees were good and wanted to perform well. The window in the CEO’s office overlooking the factory floor was bricked up, the time-clocking system was removed, all storage areas were unlocked and all departments were dissolved. This was to remove all of the structures that prevented factory workers from working freely.

FAVI now functions as a network of self-managed, mini-factories. These focus on one client or one specific product and normally comprises 20-35 operators and an elected leader, who must always be an operator who has been working in the factory for several years. Salaries, holidays, recruitment etc. are all managed within the team and leaders report to clients and operators, but not to anyone else internally. This network of factories has been found to be highly efficient, adaptive to the needs of the business and more productive than before. After these changes, employee turnover dropped, production time for main products went from 11 days to 1 day and increased their market share in the European automotive industry.

If these two very different organisations can achieve all they have without managers, why do most companies spend so much time and money on people to manage others? These and other examples seem to show that rather than making companies run more effectively, managers may actually be impeding progress and inhibiting people who make money for the company from actually doing their jobs. Taking all of this in to account, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of the manager in the workplace and maybe start thinking if we need them at all.