Knee jerk reactions.
Whenever there’s a new work movement, like the remote work movement, tech people will jump onto it. A couple years ago, when I first got into tech, it was holacracy, or self-management in the workplace. Doing away with hierarchical structure and layered management sounded great on paper, so everyone in tech latched onto this movement.
Flat structures work well for some companies. Look at Valve, the game studio that made games like Half-Life and is now managing Steam. They self manage really well. It’s a developer-focused company that has both a flat structure and a remote work environment.
Then there’s Automattic, the creators of WordPress. Their team is almost completely remote.
GitHub has over 400 employees and they’re largely remote, too.
This shift towards a flat management structure was happening at Treehouse, too. We were removing layers of management and titles, and a full 60% of our team was remote when I was there. Most of our team was engineering and developers, so the flat management structure and remote work environment worked well for us. Our marketing team of about 7-8 people had video producers in the office, but that was it.
But this caused a lot of confusion. Without titles, who do you report to? Who’s your boss? How do you manage your goals?
The reason I bring this up is because a lot of companies outside of tech have tried to switch to the whole no-manager model. Treehouse tried to do that. Buffer tried to do that. Zappos also did it…though now they’re reverting back.
A lot of these companies are shifting back towards more traditional management and work environment paradigms because, quite frankly, they still work really well. The whole concept of the 40-hour work week, for example, has been optimized fairly well.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t question the status quo. You definitely want to ask “why” all the time. But I think when you question the way of things, you first have to ask yourself, “Why are these things the way they are?” before making knee jerk reactions based on your assumptions.
For example, when I first came to Single Grain, almost all of our team was in San Francisco. I was working remotely out of Santa Monica and I said, “Hey, since I just came from Treehouse, why don’t we make the whole thing remote, because remote’s the new thing to do.” It was the new fad.
I didn’t stop and consider what kind of effect that would have on the company. Eliminating the office and having everyone work from home all of a sudden was the same as eliminating our culture. People knew each other in the office. I totally didn’t take that into consideration, and that was bad. My decision basically took away the culture and I made all of these sweeping changes without thinking things through.
I was operating 100% on knee jerk reactions.
Related Content: Ultimate Guide to Building a World Class Team
But if you’re going to make these big, sweeping changes, you need to stop and think deeply about the status quo.
In retrospect, despite my stint with flat structures, I think managers ultimately do make sense. Quite frankly, most companies literally would not function without management. Some companies can pull it off due to their hiring practices and remote culture, but they started out that way very intentionally and scaled up.
You need to question what’s happening around you. But you don’t want to react too quickly. Just because someone says something’s great or there’s this new trend doesn’t mean you should jump on it immediately.
As a marketer, I’m always looking at the new stuff that’s happening and I want to run marketing experiments all day long.
But when you look at a business as a living, breathing entity, you realize that there are real people involved. You affect people’s lives with every big decision you make, and if you can’t be a change agent then there’s going to be a lot of resistance. And wherever there’s resistance, the company suffers as a whole.
At Treehouse, we had the whole concept of four-day workweeks. That might have been a knee jerk reaction on their part. Recently, Treehouse had to do away with the four-day workweek. It just didn’t work anymore.
To be perfectly honest, when I was there, we were struggling and we were about to run out of cash. I was only there for a month or two when the CEO said, “Hey, if we don’t hit numbers this month, we’re going to have to let you go.” I was working seven days a week to make things happen.
Related Content: The Definitive Guide to Building a Remote Team
Moral of the story? Sometimes things sound good on paper. But you have to know what kind of repercussions there are.
For example, though the average Treehouse employee loved the four-day workweek, we were still being very ambitious. As the marketing team leader, I actually ended up working longer to hit our goals because everyone else was working less. If my entire team had to start working seven days a week while everyone else was working four days a week, that friction would have boiled up to the surface really quickly.
You don’t want to have to worry about these things. It’s better for you to just focus your team on doing real work that actually makes an impact and moves the needle.
My point is, always think through your decisions. Don’t make the same mistakes that I’ve made, or that Treehouse and all these other companies made because of knee jerk reactions to unproven trends. Always be smart about what you do, because that has an impact on everyone else who works for you.
This post was adapted from Eric’s Facebook Live videos: Growth 90 – DAILY live broadcasts with Eric Siu on marketing and entrepreneurship. Watch the video version of this post: