Think small: Why big companies should think like individual employees

Illustration by Fanny Luor

With the rapid rise of technology in the workplace, you might think human voices would be on the decline. But in fact, work culture has actually become more human-centric. Half of millennials say they would take a pay cut for work that aligns with their values. Despite the hype around AI threatening jobs, Deloitte says today’s fastest growing careers require distinctly human skills—STEAM (A for Arts) is the new STEM. Smart companies are responding to the trends, switching to more consumer-friendly tech, and opting for smaller teams over traditional bureaucracies. Their winning mindset: thinking less like corporations, and more like individuals.

Let people work the way they want

Traditionally, companies have picked tools with a top-down approach. An IT manager negotiates a deal on a new tool or piece of software, and the employees learn to work with it—no matter how unintuitive or complicated it might be. From the corporation’s standpoint, it makes sense: it’s simply the best price for a tool that promises to get the job done.

Unfortunately, this approach has become less effective over time. Today’s employees have access to more tools, technology, and software than ever. They tend to start using their own products—and experimenting with the best of what comes on the market—instead of relying on the company solutions. The brass keeps trying to bring everyone to the same platform; employees keep resisting.

Mary Meeker expands on this point in her 2018 Internet Trends Report. She points out how some of the fastest-growing enterprise software has consumer-first DNA. For example, she notes how Slack first won over individual users with its intuitive look and feel, and only then grew within enterprise companies. The collaboration platform has helped employees work the way they want, reducing email by 32% and meetings by 23%. What’s more, paying customers have increased 30% as a proportion of total users over three years.

Similarly, Meeker highlights how Dropbox has won over enterprises on the strength of its user-friendly roots. Many employees started using Dropbox for personal needs, then began sharing files with colleagues at work. Today, Meeker says Dropbox helps enterprise companies reduce IT support time by 31%, save 3.7K hours per year in document management, and increase the number of employees on multi-department teams by a factor of six—a big win for company-wide collaboration. With both Slack and Dropbox, employees voiced their preferences, and the companies listened.

Give everyone a voice

Letting employees choose the tools they prefer is a good start. But they also want to have influence and impact without rigid hierarchies and team silos getting in the way. That’s why modern companies are asking themselves what kind of organizational approach can help employees find satisfying, meaningful work, quickly.

Increasingly, the answer is flatter, more networked teams. In its 2017 Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte found that the most high-performing companies were rapidly moving to this model. Instead of optimizing for an assembly line of efficiency, smart organizations were creating smaller, more adaptable teams that work across many disciplines. This new model allows top talent to jump from project to project, to constantly build new skills, and to stay engaged.

A flatter structure also means new employees can contribute more quickly. When good ideas don’t always have to come from senior management, organizations have a better chance of finding creative solutions to tough problems. It’s an organizational philosophy that appeals to the individual, but also better serves the company.

As technology continues to develop, we’ll likely see companies finding new ways to adapt. The trends that arrive through continued innovation might last for awhile, or they may quickly evolve into something new. But regardless of when the next wave comes, it’s likely to come from the individuals, not the corporations.

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