In the relationship era of business, networked structure rules

In the relationship era of business, networked structure rules
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In the heyday of the industrial era, business jargon had a mechanical ring to it. A flourishing organization was a “well-oiled machine,” and terms like “precision” and “maximized production” dominated workplace conversation. Management ruled the corporate engine, overseeing operations from atop a clearly defined hierarchy.

In today’s relationship era of business, however, this type of rigidity is counterproductive. Among millennials in particular (who will make up 50% of the workforce by 2020), there is almost no greater source of unease than the feeling of being a “cog in a machine.” Today’s business buzzwords—“disrupt,” “innovate,” “thought leader”—elicit images of free-flowing ideas. Employees (especially millennials) expect to have a voice that contributes to the company’s mission. Giving them a voice requires rethinking traditional management structures.

As the business landscape continues to shift in response to technology, so, too, do workplace hierarchies. While top-down models made sense in the age of assembly lines, modern companies are experimenting with “matrixed” and “networked” structures, organizational models that are a much better fit for today’s digitally fueled enterprises.

A new org chart

A networked organization eschews traditional org charts in favor of close-knit, interconnected teams. One of the appeals of this structure is that it’s much nimbler. Instead of massive re-org shake-ups every several years, companies can roll out smaller, more frequent iterations on an as-needed basis. Within networked systems, it’s easier to determine accountability, consider multiple opinions, and improve information flow both within and among teams. According to Bain & Company, 85% of the problems that stop companies from sustaining profitable growth are internal. Networked organizations, on the other hand, are more likely to retain a “founder’s mentality” that allows them to be agile.

Managers accustomed to traditional leadership models often assume that networked organizations are prone to anarchy, but a mounting body of evidence suggests otherwise. A widely cited study on decision-making found that groups tend to make better and faster decisions than individuals. This lends credence to the theory that networked systems are not only more equitable, but also more productive.

Perhaps the most important element (and where some organizations misstep), is that flat, networked structure doesn’t eliminate leadership, it simply distributes it differently. A greater number of employees get pieces of the leadership pie, which results in fewer management misfires and, in turn, increased productivity and profitability.

At least, that’s how it should work. As with any major paradigm shift, overhauling established structure is not without its challenges. While certain companies have thrived after implementing experimental organizational structure, others have struggled to adapt. Several high-profile companies have embraced flat structures like holocracy only to later abandon them, citing confusion over roles and responsibilities.

The jury might still be out on the exact model best suited for the workplace of the future, but many analysts agree that structure is flattening out across the board. So, what’s the most effective way to implement and maintain progressive structure?

Talking with employees, not to them

One promising answer lies in new communication tools. Consider this use of a productivity tool like Workplace by Facebook in action. A CEO no longer sends out a cold, indifferent memo or annual report. Instead, they make a major company announcement via a company-wide group comment or live video that employees can respond to in real time. Using Workplace breaks down barriers between the executive team and the staff, which helps employees at every level feel more empowered and encouraged to participate.

And it works both ways: The CEO gets immediate feedback in the form of  data that can take the pulse of the organization. Senior management can then use this information  to address issues, join in the discussion, or simply celebrate success. Teams can also form separate messaging groups so they can collaborate in ways that work best for them (the design team inevitably works differently than finance, for example). With this type of platform, giving a voice to employees no longer becomes something that requires constant effort and vigilance. Rather, it’s built into the framework of the entire organization.

The fact that the lines between our professional and personal lives are blurring doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing—work may seep into our home lives, but we’re rewarded with greater flexibility and autonomy in return.  As new tools become as prolific in the workplace as they are in our everyday lives, organizations can use them to help employees be their authentic selves in the workplace, thereby feeling happier and more engaged at work.

37% of the global workforce is now mobile. So, enabling two-way conversations on a mobile platform can be particularly transformative for companies with employees who don’t all work from one location. Companies using tools like Workplace are poised to capitalize on the realities presented by a new global workforce.

This article was produced on behalf of Workplace by Facebook by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.