6 Ways Today’s Companies Are Managing Smarter

The old rules don't apply anymore.

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in June, 2016.


As the modern economy moves further away from factory-style production and more towards knowledge-work, new management techniques will be needed. On the forefront of this shift are a handful of companies who are challenging the nature of business-as-usual. Their innovative changes are helping to redefine what it means to run a successful and intelligent business.

Dr. David Burkus, a consultant and professor at Oral Robert University, recently wrote Under New Management, a book that explores how people are running businesses in the 21st century. Here are some of his observations of the innovative decisions he found being made:

Minimize Email

Email is unproductive, especially because it can fool you into feeling productive. The sheer volume of information is simply too disorganized and disruptive. “Think about what your inbox is,” says Evernote CEO Phil Libin, “Your email is a list of things you’re behind on, sorted in the wrong order. It’s not how you want to work. Email is fine if you’re maybe getting two or three a day. It was never meant for anything like the volume we currently see.”

The average worker checks her inbox 36 times per hour. And while it feels like clearing up your inbox is an accomplishment for the day, that sort of work isn’t of much value to the company. One company, Atos Origin based in France, has done away with email altogether; instead relying on a company-tailored social network that employees can enter on their own terms. On the less-extreme end, some companies enforce a no-email after work policy, or limit distraction by restricting email activity to certain hours of the day. In a time where tools like Slack gain currency in the workplace, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see people shying away from the discontents of email.

These changes are most effective when implemented on a company wide-level, but some of us don’t have the luxury to unplug for hours at a time. Still, it’s important to manage your email productively, as this guide from Lifehacker will help you to do.

Let the Team Hire

Hiring the right talent is one of the most important responsibilities a manager has. Unfortunately, it can be a difficult one, and many candidates who appear promising during the interview process under-perform when put in the saddle. To prevent this, some companies have brought other employees into the mix; soliciting the opinions of those who would actually have to work beside the new hire.

One company that has taken this to heart is Whole Foods, who allows the department that will absorb the new hire to get a feel for the candidate. The process takes sixty days, involving training and phone interviews, and is applied to all positions, from cashiers to workers in the headquarter office. After this process, candidates will only be hired if they receive a two-thirds majority vote from the team.

The web company Automattic, the folks behind WordPress software, has new hires go through what they call “trials.” This period is something like an audition, in which a candidate works (often-remotely) on a project with other employees. This way, the company can get a sense of how people will perform on the team, and how the people who will work with them feel about it.

Put Employees First

Getting repeat business from customers is essential to thriving as a business. The road to repeat customers, however, probably requires focusing on another thing entirely: your employees.

The happier and more qualified your employees are, the more likely your customers will be to come back for the service and quality they value. Grocery stores like Wegmans, for instance, strive to hire the right people, sometimes sending them abroad and to classes to be better informed about their product. This approach has its downsides (growth, for instance, is slowed by a commitment to acquiring quality workers) but the upside is that Wegmans customers are loyal and enthusiastic, and with good reason.

Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack, has echoed this sentiment: “The only way we can consistently earn raves, win repeat business, and develop bonds of loyalty with our guests is to first ensure that our team members feel jazzed about coming to work.” Supporting employees, rather than controlling or commanding them, can go a long way in helping your business reach its fullest potential.

Scratch Vacation Policies

Hours and days worked in an office are less of a measure of productivity than ever before. It makes sense then, that we reevaluate our policies surrounding taking time off.

That’s what Netflix famously did, in abolishing its vacation policy a few years ago. With a slide deck of 128 pages, Netflix changed the way people thought about management in a modern landscape, with Sheryl Sandberg considering the slideshow the most important document to come out of Silicon Valley. Richard Branson followed by applying the policy to some of his employees at Virgin, too.

The policy was built on the idea that trust will build more trust. And it has worked out well for them. In hoping their employees will look after the interest of Netflix and their team, they’ve seen improved morale and no harm in productivity. “Over the years we learned that if we asked people to rely on logic and common sense instead of on formal policies, most of the time we would get better results, and at a lower cost,” said Netflix chief talent officer Patty McCord.

Rethink the Open Office Plan

The case against the open plan office has been gaining traction over the last five years. For all its intent to spark collaboration, the open plan has been found to encourage stress, distraction, and fatigue. The Harvard Business Review has even found that because employees know they are likely to be overheard, are less-likely to have informal or in-depth meetings with others.

Still, alternatives are not easy to come by. We may tease the open plan offices that are set around ping pong tables today, but we would hardly want to go back to the cubicle-based designs of twenty years ago. Nor is there much promise in going back to the hierarchical private office design of even earlier.

One good example is the office of consulting firm Gerson Lehrman Group, Inc. Their employees are allowed to work from wherever they want in the company’s two-story space. They have department stations, called “neighborhoods,” eclectic furniture, and a space that allows for a variety of employee functions. There’s a coffee station for informal conversation and private booths for phone calls and distraction-less work. Considering the significant cost savings open offices allow, it’s not likely companies will get rid of them entirely, but there are ways we can make them more productive and suited to the needs of a given workday.

Increase Financial Transparency

There is a great taboo around salary disclosure, but there is a mounting case against getting rid of all the secrecy. First, salary-concealing can hide an abusive practice, one in which employees of the same value are paid differently simply because of varied negotiations or expectations. It also helps perpetuate unequal pay among genders.

Data analytics company SumAll has worked to do away with the dicey world of salary-determination. They have their pay-calculations down to a science, so employees can be confident they’re not being taken advantage of. Not only that, but the company has created a database of the salaries throughout the entire company, which can be accessed by any employee, any time.

Not only has salary-disclosure helped to increase the flow of applicants, it has made existing employees more productive. To understand why, we might turn to the research of workplace psychologist John Stacey Adams, who proposed that salary-secrecy can make employees feel under-compensated and under-appreciated. When workers feel like this, Adams found, they are likely to depreciate their effort and quality of work to make up for the perceived deficiency.

Outside the realm of salary, some employers have found that general engagement with the company’s finances is an effective way to stir engagement. The craft brewery New Belgium grants its employees access to its financial data, in addition to financial literacy training to make sense of the numbers. “I think people lose the power of feeling like an owner if they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes,” says founder Kim Jordan.

To encourage employee-engagement, it pays to permit them with a wide opportunity to get involved.