Start-up culture spreads as employees set own rules

Traditional office environments can thwart innovation and employee happiness.
Traditional office environments can thwart innovation and employee happiness. 

If you ever get offered a job by Gen Y entrepreneur Sharon Latour, you can look forward to working wherever and pretty much whenever you want.

Latour was only 23 when she launched her business in 2011. But she was already over the old school management practices she'd encountered while working for large corporations.

Digital natives are prone to hacking old models. They're now hacking the established paradigms around work.

Anders Sörman-Nilsson

"I didn't find traditional office environments conducive to innovation or happiness," she explains. "So when I launched my business with $450 in the bank and using a Melbourne café as my office, I decided to create something different."

Gen Y entrepreneur Sharon Latour was 23 when she launched her business.
Gen Y entrepreneur Sharon Latour was 23 when she launched her business.  Photo: Supplied

Latour's company, Marketing Bee, now has 21 employees and contractors scattered around the world. It's on track to be turning over $10 million a year by 2018.

"People my age have grown up with technology. They're used to getting things done from anywhere at any time," Latour says. "They don't have the mindset that you need to be in a particular physical space during a particular time to work. Clients give us jobs. As long as staff do those jobs well by deadline, I don't care if they want to start work at 3am in the morning or live in Australia, the US or Europe."

Agile is in style

Activity-based working, agile working, the Results Only Work Environment, halocracy – call it what you will, but giving workers greater independence is taking off. The deal between capital and labour is that as long as the work gets done, the person doing it can sort out the details.

Anders Sörman-Nilsson, a futurist and founder of the think tank Thinque.
Anders Sörman-Nilsson, a futurist and founder of the think tank Thinque. Photo: Supplied

A perfect storm of technological, cultural and generational change is driving the trend. "Wireless connectivity, laptops and phablets mean work is now something you do rather than a place you go," says Anders Sörman-Nilsson, a futurist and founder of the think tank Thinque.

"Trends such as companies using on-demand talent pools and people aspiring to the free-agent, digital nomad lifestyle have been around for a while. On top of all that, baby boomers are exiting workplaces and digital natives gaining more influence within them. Digital natives are prone to hacking old models. They're now hacking the established paradigms around work."

Start-up culture

"The culture of tech start-ups – staff having a lot of personal freedom – is spreading. That's already had an impact in industries such as banking, insurance and financial services," notes Peter Gahan, a professor of management at the University of Melbourne and the director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership.

"Employers are seeking employees capable of thinking creatively and using their discretion. That leads to structuring workplaces in ways that are less hierarchical."

It's been employers who've been most resistant to getting with the worker autonomy program. Yet it may well end up being wage slaves who come to discover greater freedom is a mixed blessing.

Out of sight

The eternal fear of managers is that workers will slack off when out of eyeshot. But the same technology driving new ways of working allows Orwellian levels of managerial surveillance.

Computer tracking systems can record what was on a staffer's screen for every second they were logged on. And the GPS on their work phone means they can never go off the grid.

"I'd imagine that more autonomy would inevitably involve the trade-off of more transparency and accountability from employees about how they are spending their time," says Professor Gahan.

It's also worth noting corporations have thus far been most enthusiastic about offering freedom to the workaholic professionals who are least likely to take advantage of it. It seems improbable many of those given unlimited leave entitlements at LinkedIn, Netflix or Virgin have opted to go backpacking through Asia for six months.

In fact, it's entirely possible they're taking even less leave than they did under the old system.

Embrace the new world

And it's not hard to imagine the rise of the autonomous worker – more likely than not to be a contractor - being the last nail in the coffin for the union movement.

"I'd advise people to be alert but not alarmed about the growth of much more fragmented work arrangements," says Professor Gahan. "More than ever, it's important people cultivate a range of technical and soft skills. They should also be prepared to adapt if their labour market position is disrupted."

"In a globalised, digitised economy people are going to have to be their own HR departments," says Sörman-Nilsson. "They'll need to negotiate the arrangements that allow them the work-life balance they want."

Latour argues both business owners and those wanting to work for them can either embrace change or be run over by it.

"How many people go to a bank branch rather than doing their banking online nowadays?" she asks. "More and more industries are moving to model that allows for remote and online work. Within five years the way I do business will be a lot more common."