It’s hard to think of a business or sector that didn’t experience a shock this year. From moving exclusively to remote work, to struggling with unexpected spikes or troughs in demand, and pivoting quickly to new business models and revenue streams, 2020 kept pretty much every company on its toes.
As teams struggled to adjust to new modes of work, be those entirely remote, socially distanced in person, or a hybrid, management culture came under the microscope. Companies that had operated the same way for decades with solid results suddenly had to rethink the relationship between managers and employees. Management experts think about those models in terms of tight and loose management cultures.
I’ve been in IT for 15 years and I’ve had experience working across both. Taking into account the realities of 2020, I wanted to investigate how different IT companies with a range of styles are adapting to the new circumstances. After plenty of interesting and informative conversations with employees and clients of different businesses, here are a few thoughts concerning management cultures and the challenges they’ve been facing this year.
Throughout the 20th century, tight was the main management style. While they may not necessarily be familiar with the term, most workers have experienced it at one time or another.
What are the main hallmarks of tight management? They include:
The entire philosophy behind tight companies seems to center around one point: to achieve the most output during each employee’s working hours. It may seem hard to argue with this approach. Employee performance and predictability are very important features for planning and achieving business results. But as they say, every coin has two sides.
There are plenty of drawbacks to staff being managed with tight constraints. There are obvious feelings of micromanagement and being under constant pressure. For some, this is a real problem, and direct managers and HR will likely see the impacts the most. I’ve seen situations when, after only a few changes, employees became satisfied and their performance even increased.
The larger issue is this: Employees following established patterns, with defined paths of escalation and circumscribed responsibilities often do not have the desire or ability to solve non-trivial problems under unforeseen circumstances. Just think of the well-known expressions, spoken half-jokingly, but familiar to so many office workers—“that’s above my pay grade” or “just kick the can down the road”—passing the buck rather than taking the responsibility for addressing issues and coming up with a solution. Roughly speaking, in the case of force majeure, the efficacy of “doers” is much lower than that of “problem-solvers.”
With the development of digital technologies, which increased dynamic changes in business structures, a logical response to the modern challenges businesses face was found in loose management culture. The loose management principle is based on a high degree of staff freedom. The company welcomes employees’ creativity and fully trusts them. Everyone decides for themselves when, where, and how to fulfill immediate responsibilities. Picture, for instance, the cliche startup working space, with venues to stimulate creativity and provide maximum comfort. I’ve visited plenty of companies whose offices were more like game rooms or cozy coffee shops, where employees can brainstorm over ice cream or meet at artisanal espresso bars.
While it certainly was appealing, it’s easy to see the downside as well. For starters, these setups can lead to inefficient use of working time. It is natural for a person to follow the path of greater pleasure and less resistance. The number of people in conventional playrooms can start to outnumber the employees working behind screens. Furthermore, the cultivation of innovation and thinking outside the box can backfire with employees turning to inefficient tools to reach business targets.
That said, there are certainly strong advantages to the loose principle. Namely, the ability to foster personnel with creative and critical thinking abilities. “Problem-solvers” are much more effective in non-standard situations and are able to independently make important decisions, which significantly speeds up and simplifies the process of creating groundbreaking products.
Of course, a surfeit of freedom is the reason for the ineffective exploitation of working time, and the lack of responsibility can lead to lower performance. This leads us to what I believe is the next iteration of business culture: tight-loose. The essence of tight-loose is a desire to combine both concepts to extract maximum benefits while minimizing risks. Staff is selected and trained on the basis of the principle that problem-solvers are more important than doers. However, business goals remain the top priority, and in order to achieve them, there needs to be both a vertical element of management and a clearly defined plane of freedom for employees.
Creativity and critical thinking are encouraged, but their realms of application are defined. There is no constant monitoring, but there are clear requirements both for tasks and their deadlines as well as for the expected quality of work performed. Everyone understands the roles of management and responsibility.
This year has undoubtedly brought great suffering to people everywhere: hundreds of thousands of deaths, billions of losses and millions of unemployed. In times like these, every business is searching for a path of strength.
As it turned out, the culture of management had a significant impact on the speed of reaction and how companies were able to adapt to changing realities. I think it has become clear: Businesses working on the principle of tight-loose turned out to be as well prepared as possible for the upheaval of the current year. In times that no one was ready for, the presence of creative people who are able to take responsibility helped quite successfully change the format and paradigm of work to completely remote, without losing the quality of the work.
In my subjective opinion, DOOR3 is a great example of this. We were able to both quickly prepare for changes in the business environment and offer our clients good solutions to their problems. As a result, we continue to stand firmly on our feet and look to the future with restrained optimism.
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