how Zappos’ manager-free model is working out, is working from home contagious, and more

Over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I take a look at several interesting work-related stories in the news right now: how Zappos’ manager-free model is working out, whether working from home is contagious, and more.

You can read it here.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

    1. TL -*

      I would imagine so, even if it’s not formal. I’ve never seen a group without some sort of management structure work in a productive, effective way, though they do generally manage to get a lot of talking done. Data set of 3, though, so YMMV.

      1. Artemesia*

        I have seen two companies with ‘wholeocracies’ founder and flounder and duplicate efforts and avoid doing activities that are obvious and would increase business. How anyone thinks this can be effective is beyond me.

        1. Charityb*

          your mileage may vary. It’s kind of another way to say, “to each her own” or “different people will get different results from the same thing”.

    2. Bea W*

      I suspect there are certain personality types that end up functioning as de facto manager type people.

    3. MaryMary*

      I think natural leaders emerge, but it’s hard to evolve management structure. Even when you have someone willing to take on difficult decisions, they don’t have the authority to finalize unpopular budget or personnel changes.

      1. Ad Astra*

        That’s where my concern would lie — how can the natural leaders be effective if they have no authority?

      2. Paige Turner*

        I wonder how you put “unofficial manager” on your resume when you’re looking to move up/move on…

    4. Cat like that*

      This is second hand information, but my sister works at Zappos. I’ve talked to her about the holoacracy model and she says that people within her “circle” (aka team) tend to defer to people who have more seniority in the company or experience in their particular role, even if those people are not technically managers.

        1. Cat like that*

          Yeah, she does. She started at Zappos about 6 months before the change and she likes the new model better. She really enjoys how she’s able to work between different teams and parts of the business and get experience in customer service, merchandising, etc. But my sister has always been both a hard worker and a free spirit, so I think she’s the kind of person who would thrive in this environment.

          Also, she mentioned to me a few weeks ago that her “circle” had decided to let go of a slacker co-worker who was bringing down the overall effectiveness of the team. She didn’t go into detail of how that process worked, though.

          1. fposte*

            This reminds me of my alternative, self-taught and self-governing high school experience. Which was cool, but which was also a ton of work, so I’m not sure I’d want to take it on now in addition to the work of work itself.

          2. Cat*

            I feel like this could work in a lot of circumstances and that I’d like it too. I do wonder if there’s anyone keeping an eye on whether circles are disproportionately getting rid of people in protected classes and things like that.

    5. Chinook*

      Having worked in a volunteer group that worked as a cooperative with no defined leadership (and who didn’t want a defined leader), I would say yes. People who have the ability to organize floated to the top as defacto leaders but they, and we, also realized that their leadership is situation specific (i.e. scheduling). But, when new people came in, their was confusion and some thought there was a leadership void. As a result, a strong personality stepped up with a very different leadership style and from a cultural background that is very hierarchical and this has caused much hurt from those who have been there for decades (and had shown flexibility on new ideas and attitudes, so it wasn’t the usual “we don’t do that” complaints) and even calls from the self-appointed leader for certain people to step aside because they are unqualified in her opinion (because the nature of our group meant nobody flaunts their qualifications and the new person just assumed we were all uneducated country bumpkins). I left at this point after repeated attempts to show people how dangerous this is going to be to our cohesiveness as I had lost all enjoyment in belonging to this group.

      What I am saying is that this management structure only works if everyone allows it to work. As soon as someone with a different management style and a strong personality comes in, there will be chaos as there is no way to deal with the issue because, technically, there is no one with the authority to say no.

  1. Bea W*

    On productivity, if i tackled email as it came in I would get very little done. I deal with it first thing in the morning, once or twice midday, and give it a quick glance at the end of the day but leave non-urgent things that require more attention to the morning round. I work with people in time zones ahead of me and people who are extreme early birds. So this timing works well for me. I receive the bulk of my email between the time I leave and the time I start work.

    Other tasks I need to prioritize, and some lend themselves to being done in a bolus at one time instead of piece meal as requests come in. There’s never a time I will have a totally done “to do list”, and advice that focusing on crossing everything off doesn’t work so well in that environment or in an environment where priorities are constantly shifting.

    1. BRR*

      I think you are naming one of the best approaches in you do what works for you. People operate differently and jobs have different requirements. Suggestions are great but you can’t really dictate that one method of productivity is the best.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      My to-do list is written months in advance! And it’s set up in Outlook so that I can see it for the current day, the next day, and the week. It’s the one thing I like about Outlook.

    3. catsAreCool*

      I tend to triage my e-mails. If something is important or is easy to answer quickly, it usually gets answered quickly. For me, that’s easier than having those e-mails just sit there. Other e-mails need more time and aren’t more important than what I’m doing, so I let them be for a while.

      1. Formica Dinette*

        Same here. I have email alerts turned off and instead check it several times a day. I’ll respond immediately if it’s truly necessary or if it doesn’t require any thought or research. Otherwise, I respond within 24-48 hours. If someone needs to reach me immediately, they call, but that’s rare. It probably makes a difference that all of my customers are internal.

  2. ThursdaysGeek*

    On number 2, the productivity myths – I’m going to have to agree that all of those myths are wrong, and I agree with the Fast Company article. How could no organization to your email or immediately jumping on a task as it arrives make someone more productive anyway?

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I see people where I work do this – it is always the people who don’t really understand how to use technology and aren’t very proficient who do this. But maybe some people enjoy being distracted with pointless tasks and having a messy inbox where they can’t find anything (not that they read their email)?

    2. Ad Astra*

      I have never had any organization system in my email, and the few times I’ve tried to set one up have sort of fizzled out. I found that anything I moved into a file was immediately forgotten, which is worse than having it buried somewhere in my main inbox. To be fair, I get an alarmingly low volume of email (company full of phone people), so it’s probably more manageable than some people’s inboxes.

      And I tend to deal with most quick emails right away for the same sort of reason: If I don’t, I’m likely to forget about it — even if I’ve marked it “follow up.” I will ignore incoming emails if I’m really in the zone working on something, but half the time I’m just staring at my screen trying to get through writers’ block.

      1. Windchime*

        I’m this way, too. I picture most of the people who comment here as extremely organized people who have all these fancy folders and rules for their inboxes. I currently have over 11,000 emails in my inbox; only one is unread (and I can tell it’s spam from the title so it will be deleted). I like keeping them all in my inbox so I can easily sort by “From”, or I can search the whole folder, stuff like that. I do have some rules and folders for notification emails that come frequently, but otherwise I leave them all in my inbox. I don’t know how to categorize them otherwise; is an email from Kelly about the X project supposed to go in the Kelly folder or in the X project folder?

        1. Formica Dinette*

          I save almost all of my emails, and my sophisticated organization system is to batch them by year, then Inbox and Sent within each year. Search works for me. I tried creating a more detailed system, but it took a lot of time and I had a hard time finding things. My coworker, on the other hand, categorizes them all. She is an exceptionally organized person in all aspects of her life. :)

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      It works for me, and it’s worked for me at every job I’ve had. I’m a procrastinator by nature so if I don’t jump on a task right away, it’s very unlikely to get done. And the search function in Gmail is very quick and thorough, so I don’t have to organize email to find stuff later.

      How about “to each her own”? You may not be able to be productive without organizing your email or waiting to jump on tasks, but other people may be.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I’ll accept that different jobs and different people can have different and legitimate working styles.

        I’ve always worked at a places that eventually yells at you if your inbox is taking up too much room (although the amount allowed has been growing at each place too), so I’ve found that having an organization and moving emails that have been dealt with to an archive is much easier to handle. I also group emails by projects so that I don’t need to use a search — I am often able to go to the applicable email directly.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          I’ve always worked at a places that eventually yells at you if your inbox is taking up too much room (although the amount allowed has been growing at each place too)
          I’ve had workplaces like that, too (mainly ones hosting Exchange servers in house). Rather than organizing ahead of time, what I’ve done is just periodically sort my messages by size and then delete the ones with large attachments (the storage requirements are based on total disk space and not based on total number of messages).

      2. Cat*

        Yeah, I think how organized your email needs to be is inversely proportionate to how good the search engine is. In Outlook, it’s just not that good unfortunately.

        1. Noah*

          Yup, I had to learn how to organize email again after moving to a company that uses Exchange instead of Google Apps. With Google Apps I just left everything in my inbox and searched when I needed something. With Exchange that takes forever, and doesn’t always work.

    4. Bend & Snap*

      A large part of my job is reactive and time sensitive. Jumping on things immediately means I’m doing my job well.

      1. Ad Astra*

        This is what I liked most about working in news: You show up, you react to what’s happening, and then eventually you go home. Your deadline is either RIGHT FREAKING NOW (online news) or 11:50 p.m. (print layout).

        I have a harder time with things that need to be done soonish but not immediately. So, like, an hour? A day? A week? Sometimes my guesses are not what the requester had in mind. And of course I don’t have adrenaline rushes to get me through.

    5. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*


      I have no organization to my email and I jump on every email as it comes in. And I get a lot of emails. And I kick serious productivity ass.

      Work is a stream (more like big river?) for me. I cannot imagine wasting time to folder emails when search is so much more effective for me. My inbox right this sec has 94,410 items. (I do delete some.)

      *my wasting time is somebody else’s saving time, which is my point, not that my method is better for somebody else.

        1. Revolver Rani*

          And I cannot function without them. They are how I remember what I have to do, how I choose what to do next (for instance, I have 30 minutes until my next meeting, what can I tackle in that time?), how I break big tasks into smaller ones, how I keep track of which parts of a big task I’ve done and which I still have yet to do. Perhaps I just have a really crappy memory. But I live and die by my to-do lists.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

            Team you!

            I’ll tell you what I do have, I have a rigid set of routines and a lot of external triggers. I can’t forget to “review Adword campaign performance” when I have a report sent to me at the exact same time every week and I open it up and review it at the time it’s sent. I’ve got um, I think 15 weekly reports and some early mornign every day reports that are sent to me.

            I also live and die by Outlook. “Send me an Outlook!”. I slot to prep for whatever is in my Outlook a half an hour before the event. And I always plot my week in advance, what days are focused on whichever aspects of my job of the moment and I make myself stick to the theme of that day. (although I refuse to write it down).

            So there is a plan, I just hate To Do lists or task management programs.

        2. LBK*

          Count me as another person who can’t function without to do lists. They make it infinitely easier for me to prioritize, and when I was in school they were instrumental in motivating me to actually get all my work done. Maybe it’s from decades of playing video games and always wanting to collect every item and complete every side quest, but checking things off the list was hugely satisfying and gave me a burst of enthusiasm to roll on to the next task. I don’t rely on that effect as much at work, but there is still a certain sense of accomplishment at seeing your whole list checked off just in time to go home.

  3. Clever Name*

    My company has been operating without managers or real job descriptions for over 20 years now, and we’re finally at the size (~50 people) where it’s painfully obvious that we desperately need management and are undergoing a restructuring (well, a structuring, because the “re-” in there implies there is a current structure…). The problems we’re having is a lack of accountability and how a single employee who has no work ethic can really implode an informal team.

  4. MaryMary*

    I am delighted to learn there is a publication called Academy of Management Discoveries. If I ever go to grad school, I am going to try my best to have one of my Management Discoveries published.

  5. Mephyle*

    #1 I’m distracted by the snark awakened in my by the word ‘holacracy’. Did they base it on the Greek word ‘holan’ or were they inspired by existing words like demacracy, autacracy, etc.? In other words, why isn’t it ‘holocracy’?

    Referencing the points within the linked article, having managers doesn’t necessarily solve #1 or #2. There are plenty of letters here about problems rooted in managers who won’t make tough choices or hold slackers accountable, and who, in turn aren’t held accountable by their managers. And that is ironic.

  6. Anonymous Educator*

    I’ve never made to-do lists. “My to-do list” is my email. If I have an unanswered email, I answer it. If it doesn’t require an answer but some other kind of action, I star the email until I’m done and then un-star it. If no one sent me an email but know there’s something I need to do, I’ll send one to myself. That’s my system, and it works for me.

    I see others using Post-It notes or to-do list iPad apps or other solutions. I don’t get the productivity “myths” bit. It’s whatever works for you.

  7. Anon this time*

    Nature abhors a vacuum, and I do believe that natural leaders emerge in any group, whether they are called managers or not. The problem comes when the people who are called managers are incompetent or do not have the company’s best interests at heart. We technically have management, but it is AWOL most of the time. In a corporation of about 40 employees, the owner is an alcoholic who is mostly interested in socially keeping up appearances on the company dime. The next level down is composed of about half a dozen people who do their own thing and deliver on their own schedule as though they operated in a vacuum, leaving a trail of upset clients and destruction of goodwill. My boss is a very nice person who is tasked with being the “sweeper” and going around cleaning up messes and putting out forest fires created by the owner and others. Unfortunately, he also has no spine, or maybe I should say that whatever spine he used to have has been beaten out of him by taking too many drunken phone calls from the owner in the middle of the night. I am technically titled “Manager”, but am really just an administrator, unless there is an unpopular decision to be made or message to be delivered, then it gets dumped on me. The Accountant is too busy trying to print money to cover the owner’s personal expenses. If it weren’t for nepotism (friends and relatives riding the owner’s coattails), the workforce at the lowest level would turn over 100% every year. Those of us who do stay have issues (age, medical issues, need for flexibility) that make it very difficult to find other jobs. We are constantly on the precipice of having to close our doors, and raises are nonexistent. For years, I have been saying that this company could be great if they would only put the right people in the right positions. My boss agrees with me, but the lack of real management and, more importantly, leadership from the top has left us slogging along as always. I do not have the necessary management experience, but I would so love to be able to work with a real leader and make this company what it could be, but the owner just won’t get out of the way and let it happen.

  8. The IT Manager*

    I agree that working from home is contagious. When you have to dress and commute to work, you want to get something out of that time and effort. When you commute to work to be on teleconferences and emails all day with no face-to-face component, you feel like you could work just as well at home.

    My organization is trying to pull back on WFH by not allowing new hires and promotes to WFH; however, I don’t expect a huge benefit unless they start building teams based on location which is not how they do things now. They actually don’t have the money to relocate everyone who works from now and they wouldn’t have the offices to house them all either.

  9. Trying Holocracy*

    My company has been trying out holocracy. I’m not a big fan. The idea is that holocracy is supposed to free you from having to ask permission to do something, because you are allowed to do whatever you think is necessary to fulfill your role’s purpose and responsibilities. In practice though, management still makes the decisions because making those decisions is one of their role’s responsibilities.

    I like some of the goals of holocracy, like that you should be able to add a responsibility to another role when you need something from them, or that you can only object to a change if it will cause the business harm, which encourages people to try new things. But if your company doesn’t tend to do that stuff anyway, I don’t think holocracy will do anything.

    Our CEO is really excited about it and set up trainings for everyone, but nothing has changed except now (some) teams now have an additional “governance meeting” every week or two. The governance meetings are supposed to follow a strict format to allow for “lightning fast decision making” but in practice its a pain in the ass because you can’t actually talk about a problem someone brings up. Our management structure still exists and the same people who are lazy still don’t get things done, even after their holocracy roles have been defined to include the things they are supposed to be responsible for. And, of course, no one tells the CEO that holocracy is bunk.

    1. James M*

      Sounds like your company is running a Hoaxocracy – a management scheme that purports to be something it’s not.

      1. Anonsie*

        Yeah this sounds less like a problem of holocracy and more that your upper management are really excited about a word that seems cool but aren’t willing to change anything.

  10. Minion*

    Letting papers stack up is a surefire way for me to lose focus, start to feel overwhelmed and, consequently, get demotivated.
    I think maybe everyone who reads that article should do so with a grain of salt. They say in the beginning that there is no “one size fits all,” method, then they just flat out say to do this and don’t do this as if it were a solution for everyone. You might say a “one size fits all,” solution. Hmmm…

    1. OfficePrincess*

      See and for me, organized chaos is the goal. I’ve been known to have 3 or 4 piles going on my desk at a time, each with a different purpose – waiting on something from group A, need something from group B, need to take to X at the end of the day, now fixed and just need to file, etc. I need it all in front of my face to keep track of it on busy days.

  11. Editor*

    My workplace is set up so we can work from home. The only time we do that is if there’s a weather problem or some disaster (internet goes down at the office or the phones are out). I am baffled by the emphasis on seat time, given that my supervisor doesn’t want me to speak to her, greet her or say goodbye, and prefers email for all interaction.

    My employer should have a system for measuring productivity and get over the paranoia about working from home. As a single person, that would make it much easier for me to be home for the chimney sweep, repair techs, and stuff like that. But that’s not the way it is.

  12. Hypnotist Collector*

    I’ve been shopping at Zappo’s for years, and the last experience was the first time I had truly awful customer service, and of course, when i asked to speak to a supervisor, it was ha-ha-ha hilarious. Companies that prioritize infantile “culture” over customer service lose my business.

  13. Formica Dinette*

    Is it just me, or does the “leaders naturally emerge” thing remind anyone else of “Lord of the Flies”?

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