The Dystopian Future in Which Everyone is the Boss
On the Blurring Lines Between Worker, Manager, Employer, and Employee
Across a number of professions, bosses have been vanishing. Last year, Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe mega-retailer Zappos, announced that the company would implement Holacracy, a hierarchy-free office model with which Hsieh had become enamored after attending a conference talk by its creators. Under Holacracy—which bills itself as a system that “removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles”—Zappos employees would design their own job descriptions and work with colleagues in autonomous “circles” free from the hovering interference of “people managers.” (Former people managers were to find new roles in the company or accept buyouts.)
Hsieh hasn’t been the only boss to institute a bossless office in recent years. Somewhere between rigid corporate hierarchy and the approximately three hundred worker cooperatives that exist in the US today lies an expanding realm of manager-free workplaces. Most are white-collar and many, like Zappos, are the sorts of tech firms that have been famously predisposed to collaborative work arrangements, casual dress codes, beanbags, and other anti-corporate trappings since the beginning. But there are also industrial operations like Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing plant, where over 2,000 employees annually sign “Colleague Letters of Understanding” that lay out each worker’s job description and output goals, in lieu of managers to oversee production. In a 2013 overview for New York Magazine on the rise of bossless workplaces, Matthew Schaer reported that even Morning Star’s internal conflicts were resolved without hierarchy: instead of management or HR handling clashes between employees, anywhere from one to ten of the feuding parties’ colleagues would be enlisted to mediate the spat.
Does the bossless office signal progress for workers? The majority of Americans still answer to supervisors, and there are scant few who haven’t grumbled—if not seethed—over incompetent, abusive, or overly controlling managers. A number of studies have unsurprisingly confirmed that bad bosses create undue amounts of stress for workers. Thus, it stands to reason that removing such meddlesome disciplinarians, as companies like Zappos and Morning Star have done, has the potential to improve worker morale vastly. “It’s a beautiful way of structuring a workplace,” Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen told Inc. magazine last year. “Management is not nearly as necessary as it thinks it is.”
Growing evidence suggests that the disappearance of management bureaucracy also makes offices more productive. In an interview with Current, Martha Little, a senior producer at Audible, praised the company’s collaborative work structure and explained that top-down management was quickly becoming an obsolete way of organizing workplaces. “In this very fast-paced, very tech-oriented media-delivery-service world, I don’t think the hierarchies can really keep up with the fast pace of change, flexibility and input of ideas that you need to compete,” she said. In the Wall Street Journal, Tim Clem, an employee at the tech outfit GitHub [ed. no relation], similarly noted of his company’s bossless setup, “It makes you want to do more.”
But if employees at bossless offices often report good spirits and high productivity, outside of true worker cooperatives there is a hard limit to the workplace democracy, and it usually takes the form of the company’s purse strings. As Schaer noted of Morning Star, “The company is privately held, and no employee, no matter how hard-performing, is entitled to a share of the profits.” And different pay grades exist at all of the aforementioned “flattened” companies, no matter whose or how many voices are “heard” at company meetings.
Not only does the bossless office camouflage longstanding monetary inequalities, it also outsources the tasks once assigned to managers to an increasing number of workers. Employees at bossless companies who have supposedly been liberated from their manager overlords are generally compelled to absorb the duties of the now-nonexistent management in addition to whatever roles they might otherwise perform. At the software company Menlo Innovations—which prides itself on its boss-free, non-hierarchical work environment—committees of employees must reach consensus on most HR matters including hiring, firing, and determining employees’ pay. The absence of management, in other words, tends merely to displace “traditional” boss responsibilities onto a new group of people rather than eliminate them entirely.
Media theorist Alexander Galloway has challenged the assumption that horizontal arrangements are inherently egalitarian. According to Galloway, over the last few decades, labor and culture alike have been increasingly organized as networks—evident in the rise of “flexible” workplaces and cultural phenomena like the rise of social media. While plenty of academics and activists alike continue to believe that the dissolution of official hierarchy (the boss, the state) is synonymous with the dissolution of power, Galloway argues that such processes may only reflect the changing nature of a post-Fordist world. He further cautions, “Centralized verticality is only one form of organization. The distributed network is simply a different form of organization, one with its own special brand of management and control.”
While Amazon’s punitive, highly-surveilled workplace indeed sounds nightmarish, it’s perhaps the new breed of bossless office that illuminates the dystopian endgame of work under neoliberalism.
The bossless, decentralized Zappos model has been proffered as a liberatory answer to the soul-crushing environments of places like Amazon. However, while Amazon’s punitive, highly-surveilled workplace indeed sounds nightmarish, it’s perhaps the new breed of bossless office that illuminates the dystopian endgame of work under neoliberalism. Imagine, in other words, a labor-extraction apparatus so well-oiled that bosses are obsolete because every worker is one; that is, willing to oversee and discipline both their own production and that of their peers in service of capital. If managers are, as economist Frédéric Lordon has described them, “strange employees, materially on the side of labor but symbolically on the side of capital,” we might also call them neoliberalism’s model worker.
Converting a population that has historically required coercion to participate in wage labor into model workers requires, above all, reconfiguring that population’s desires when it comes to work and management. In his 2014 book Willing Slaves of Capital, Lordon examines the ever-increasing alignment of employees’ desires with those of their employers, tracing the shift from workers’ gloomy toil under Fordist capitalism to the seemingly cheerful servitude of our current era. If work was once primarily a means to obtain the money necessary first for staying alive, and then, for accessing the pleasures of consumerism, these days, Lordon finds, “the desire to find employment should no longer be merely a mediated desire for the goods that wages circuitously permit buying, but an intrinsic desire for the activity for its own sake.”
We can see this in the explosion of what the critic Miya Tokumitsu has called “Do What You Love,” the pleasant-sounding but pernicious mantra that exhorts workers to seek employment that they find personally fulfilling above all other criteria (and in particular, “conventional” criteria like job security, higher pay, and employee benefits). This ideology, which muddies the division between work and leisure time and privileges certain forms of labor over others, functions as an important part of what Lordon terms “co-linearization,” or the process by which workers’ interests come to fully overlap with his or her employer’s. While creative and white-collar professions have demanded at least the appearance of employees’ co-linearization for some time (try admitting in a job interview that you’re pursuing the position for the money rather than a unique passion for the firm), this condition has expanded to even undesirable, low-wage jobs, including sandwich makers and telemarketers.
And alongside the requirement for workers to wear a happy face even in a time of stagnant real wages and soaring income inequality is the rise of new methods for enforcing this good behavior. The digital era has birthed low- or no-cost modes of monitoring workers’ activity, many of which rely on the general public to appraise a company’s employees. For instance, a report by Josh Dzieza in The Verge late last year found that ratings systems for apps such as Uber and Handy, which are meant to regulate the quality of the services provided, effectively transform customers into “unwitting and sometimes unwittingly ruthless middle managers, more efficient than any boss a company could hope to hire. They’re always there, working for free, hypersensitive to the smallest error.”
Likewise, social media platforms and review websites such as Yelp have outsourced worker management to the public behind the veneer of improving customer service. We often hear about customer feedback mechanisms when they function in service of social justice, such as with dentist-cum-hunter Walter Palmer—whose office’s Yelp page swelled with angry comments after his unceremonious slaying of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe—or the Yelp reviews that tipped off the public to a Napa Valley wine tour that had ejected a group of black women from its train seemingly for the crime of laughing. But far more common are the clampdowns on quotidian infractions described by Joshua Sperber in his sobering New Labor Forum article on the rise of Yelp as a tool for labor discipline. Sperber notes of restaurant workers:
Yelp reviews are frequently read by restaurant owners and have been invoked to discipline, and even fire, restaurant employees who have been criticized on the site. In this way, Yelp contributors not only enrich Yelp but function as unpaid managers, or “secret shoppers,” for the restaurant industry.
These technologies not only allow actual managers to better surveil their employees, but also prime their users to assume managerial roles by encouraging them to identify and publicly discipline the behavior of workers they believe have underperformed, such as rude or slow-witted customer service reps.
The compulsion to act as a surrogate boss has also surfaced through an increasing number of more innocuous forms. One is the popular internet meme “You Had One Job,” a running catalogue of upside-down signs, ill-conceived shop displays, and other “fails” which unintentionally but inevitably implicate some worker somewhere for not having executed a task properly. While there are probably little to no repercussions aside from embarrassment for those who find their work displayed on “You Had One Job,” such practices nevertheless subtly encourage the public to scrutinize and evaluate the labor of others under the guise of a benign form of entertainment.
Modern career literature even encourages us to manage our managers. Especially within white-collar professions, work advice over the last few years has extolled the benefits of “managing up”—that is, placating moody, temperamental, or inept bosses in order to perform one’s own job better. While much of this advice is merely practical, it usually also advocates some variation of taking on the qualities absent in one’s manager. (In the event of a bumbling boss, Harvard Business Review recommends “filling the leadership void”; US News advises “thinking like a CEO.”) “Managing up” may bestow the illusion of increased power for underlings, but new reports have found that employees who feel trusted by their bosses—in other words, those who end up taking on those bosses’ burdens—suffer psychologically for it. It turns out that feeling like a boss, so to speak, isn’t entirely pleasant.
Though the blurring of the lines between worker, manager, employer, and employee may sometimes look like egalitarianism, under capitalism, it portends the further erosion of organized labor. If every union contract begins with a grievance against management, what of the shop where no managers exist, or where everyone is one? As more and more workers are primed—and in many cases forced—to become bosses-by-proxy both in and outside of their workplaces, it’s worth recalling the time-tested union-busting tactic of companies promoting employees to management in order to bar them from joining nascent unions. Our current moment of capitalism, in which the allure of horizontalism masks the slow conversion of all workers to bosses, amounts to this practice writ large.
According to Lordon, breaking the insidious co-linearization between employee and employer that defines this era will entail reconstituting our interests as workers to no longer desire work in and of itself. This, of course, is easier said than done, but a first step might include rethinking the idea that the disappearance of the traditional manager is necessarily a step forward. If it is infinitely more difficult for workers to assert our class interests when management is invisible or dispersed, let us keep our bosses. Or, more specifically, let us keep them in our sights.
This essay originally appears in Full Stop‘s third quarterly, which is available here.