Browse the business section of any bookshop and you’ll find dozens of titles promising to share the secret to climbing the corporate ladder. But the day is not far off when such books will seem as quaint and outmoded as a housekeeping manual from the 1950s.
One of the key workplace trends of the 21st century has been the collapse of the corporate ladder, whereby loyal employees climbed towards the higher echelons of management one promotion at a time. Cathy Benko, vice-chairman of Deloitte in San Francisco and co-author of The Corporate Lattice, says that the ladder model dates back to the industrial revolution, when successful businesses were built on economies of scale, standardisation and a strict hierarchy. “But we don’t live in an industrial age, we live in a digital age. And if you look at all the shifts taking place, one [of the biggest] is the composition of the workforce, which is far more diverse in every way,” she says.
This new diversity, combined with technological advances, has fed demand for a more collaborative and flexible working environment. Benko estimates that companies have “flattened out” by about 25% over the past 25 years, losing several layers of management in favour of a more grid-like structure, where ideas flow along horizontal, vertical and diagonal paths.
Career paths are becoming similarly fluid, with many following a zigzag rather than a straight path. “I would argue that [the lattice model] provides more opportunity and more possibilities to be successful,” says Benko. “In the ladder model, you’re looking in one direction, which is up. In the lattice organisation you can find growth by doing different roles, so you have new experiences, you acquire new skills, you tap into new networks. The world is less predictable than it was in the industrial age, so you stay relevant by acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills.”
A recent report, The Future Workplace, commissioned by financial protection specialist Unum and authored by The Future Laboratory, reveals how the workplace is evolving and what employers need to do successfully to manage employee wellbeing over the next 15 years. One of the key findings of the survey was that in order to attract and retain high-calibre employees, companies need to foster a more collaborative environment. This might involve hot-desking, ideas workshops and regularly switching teams. Not only do employees respond well to this style of working, but corporations benefit too as it better equips them to compete with the startups that are disrupting their business.
“Large organisations have a huge challenge in attracting the millennial generation to come and work for them. Those people expect much more entrepreneurial environments – more freedom to operate, less control,” says Philippe De Ridder, co-founder of theBoard of Innovation, a consultancy firm whose mission statement is to “help corporates innovate like start-ups”. One of the ways they do this is through a series of “intrapreneurship” programmes, which encourage employees to think and act like entrepreneurs within the confines of their company. What this means in practical terms is individuals having the freedom to take full ownership of particular domains or projects, with minimal supervision or bureaucracy, and to be able to pitch directly to the CEO without having to go through several layers of management.
The principles of intrapreneurship can apply at every level of an organisation, not just management or creative roles. De Ridder gives the example of online shoe shop Zappos.com, which abolished scripts from its call centre a year ago and gave customer service staff the freedom to deal with complaints however they saw fit. He says they are now outperforming most of their competitors in terms of customer satisfaction ratings.