Could You Work in a Bossless Office?

Flat office structures are an adjustment, but could be an environment in which to succeed.

Flat office structures are an adjustment, but could be an environment in which to succeed.
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Menlo Innovations LLC is an Ann Arbor, Mich., software development company with an open layout, where about 50 employees work without corner offices, cubicles or even assigned workstations. The staff works in pairs on each project, two people to one computer, and after a few days, the pairs are reassigned. Even Rich Sheridan, the company's CEO, sits out in the open at a lightweight, aluminum table about 5 feet high. Where exactly does he sit? It depends on the mood of the office. "I go where the team puts me," he explains. "I'd imagine there aren't many CEOs who would be comfortable letting their team move their table around, but if [the team] thinks I could be more effective for their purposes sitting elsewhere, great. The work I need to do I could do over here or over there."

This isn't what daily worklife looks and sounds like for most employees. Regardless of industry or workspace, there's usually a hierarchical pecking order that determines how decisions are made and duties are assigned. But for the handful of companies with flat structures, or "bossless" offices, the goal is to eliminate rigidity and thereby eliminate bottlenecks in productivity, boost employee engagement and positively impact performance and output. Still, "it is an unusual environment, and it might not be for everyone," Sheridan admits.

Is it for you?

Signs This Environment is Right For You ...

You enjoy brainstorming. At Menlo, teamwork begins during the interview process, when job candidates arrive in a group and are asked to simulate the work environment by working in pairs on software projects. This is a dress rehearsal where résumés or references don't play a factor, and you won't have any of the common interview questions to answer. "There's someone watching you [the job candidate] to see if you have good kindergarten skills," Sheridan explains. "Do you share well and work well with others, and things like that. Our goal on that first interview isn't to see if you can do the work so much as to see if you can collaborate."

[Read: 10 Things Never to Say to Your Co-Workers.]

You're a natural-born leader. "Bossless" is a catchy headline more than the reality. Like Menlo, most of these offices do have chief executives – Sheridan's favorite title is that of "chief storyteller" – what they're missing are the middle managers who normally handle the administrative tasks of "being the boss." As a result, de facto leaders usually arise. W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. is a Newark, Del.,-based manufacturing company that has used a flat structure for decades. The company's website touts, "We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision-making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge."

These companies' workers, as well as organizational psychologists, emphasize the difference between upholding natural leadership as opposed to appointing designated bosses. "I could promote someone and call them manager, but that's not what gives them power," adds Annette Towler, associate professor of psychology at DePaul University. "People who are recognized as leaders have the true power base. They receive it because people admire their intelligence, personality and style."

You're self-motivated and passionate. Some respond well to authority and clear hierarchal structures, while others chafe with it. The measurement of your success as an employee isn't how well you answer someone's beck and call, but what meaning you find in your assignment. "People generally perform best in work environments where they're given the resources they need to do their job, plus the autonomy to then do it," Towler says.

Often for these workplaces, the flexible format is part of the mission itself. For instance, at Menlo, joy is behind its premise. Sheridan says he believes his staff is ultimately happier, more productive and therefore, more creative. "There's a tangible business value to joy," he says. "It's about the effect we have on the world: to be able to end human suffering specifically as it relates to technology. A lot of software tortures users and doesn't work well. We want to delight people."