Work is crap, right?
For many people, this is an uncontentious statement. According to Gallup, hardly anyone is fully engaged in their work whilst half of employees would change their job tomorrow, and a sizeable number would even take a pay cut to escape their boss. Toxic workplaces and terrible bosses are the norm rather than the exception.
We need to do something, and urgently. We need to decrapify work. But what would a decrapified workplace look like?
The truth is, I don’t know. That’s not because I’m stupid (although that’s always a possibility) but because it’s unknowable. In a decrapified workplace, it’s the people that decide how things are and so everyone will be different. But here are my thoughts on some rules, principles and processes that should guide them.
My inspiration here are the codes of the pirates of the Golden Age of Pirates, which was roughly 300 years ago. These codes were democratically agreed and governed how they acted and behaved together. They were simple, clear, memorable and written in blood. These are the same principles that we should use to create modern codes that can be the basis for a decrapified workplace (apart from the last bit, which is possibly illegal).
Only two simple rules
Let’s start with the rules. There are only two (I told you it had to be simple). No arseholes and no bullshit.
For far too long, arseholes have been tolerated in the workplace. Worse than that, they’ve often been promoted. It seems being selfish, boorish, callous, mealy-mouthed, aggressive and exploitative are exactly what organisations are looking for in their managers… It has to stop. One arsehole doesn’t just spoil the barrel, it makes the barrel rot and fall apart in stinking heap. There has to be zero tolerance for arseholes.
As for bullshit, we are drowning in it. From the pointless bureaucracy to the fake bon-homie of team building events, from the empty slogans on the wall to the politicking and back-stabbing. We spend more time wading through the bullshit than doing our jobs.
These are simple rules but they are not easy to live by. We even transgress them ourselves from time to time. It takes courage and honesty and a big dollop of compassion too. But it’s well worth the effort.
Led by principles
The core principles are equality, freedom, democracy, growth and love. Yes, love. You can call it compassion, fellow feeling, care, humanity, whatever but it means the same.
So let’s start with love. People are good. That is the starting assumption. That means you can trust them, so you can get rid of a lot of the bullshit and bureaucracy.
It also means you care for them, and they care for each other. This automatically makes it an arsehole-intolerant environment.
And it means everyone treats each other like grown-ups. No more Adult-Child relationships between boss and minion, it’s Adult-Adult everywhere.
Freedom is a core principle of the decrapified workplace. That doesn’t mean you are free to do what you like, you must have care for others, fulfil your obligations and essentially do not harm. What it does mean is that you have choice, autonomy and some agency over your destiny.
So what does this mean in practice?
It means self-organisation is the default approach to getting things done. The hierarchical command-and-control approach of the pass is explicitly rejected. That doesn’t mean there is anarchy and chaos, it means people do in work what they do in the rest of their lives - they sort themselves out.
It means people decide when, where and how they work, as far as is operationally possible. If you want to restrict their autonomy, you need to have a good justification for doing so and discuss that with them. You can’t just order them or pull some other power play.
It means when there are conflicts or issues caused by this autonomous, flexible approach, they are resolved openly and transparently through discussion and agreement.
It means work boundaries are defined and agreed in advance and are respected. That doesn’t mean the employee can’t ‘break the rules’ if they want to, or that the boundaries can’t be renegotiated. What it does mean is that the employee is in control of how they integrate work into the rest of their life and their boss can’t just trample all over it.
It means people gather into crews to work on topics of their own choice. This maybe for most of their work, as it is at Valve or Haier, or just some small parts of it. However, it is present in some form and acknowledged as a valid approach to organising that levers the passions and talents of the individuals.
As the pirate said - transparency and recognition
Much of the crap at work comes from the opaque and obtuse decision-making and excessive secrecy around the organisation. This is corrosive to trust and leads to disengagement. That’s why transparency is another important principle for the decrapified workplace.
Two areas that spring to mind are information and pay and progression.
All too often, information is treated as a source of power and is hoarded by those playing politics. This is entirely counter-productive, as it prevents the information getting to where it is needed and concentrates decision making in the hands of those who have least day-to-day contact with the business. No-one is as smart as everyone and so there should be an ‘open access’ approach, with all information being available to everyone as the default.
Pay and progression is a source of disgruntlement, conflict and politicking. Accusations of favouritism inevitably emerge when the decision making is shrouded in secrecy. How much people get paid and how they get their job should be completely transparent and open to scrutiny. As far as possible, these should be determined by peers. On pirate ships, the captain and the quartermaster were elected by the crew and could be dismissed by them if they did a bad job. That’s radical transparency in action - as well as democracy, which we’ll cover next.
On a pirate ship, everyone had an equal say and a vote. 300 years ago, a bunch of mostly illiterate people at the margins of society had more say in their working life than top-rated middle-class graduates in western democracies. That’s nuts, isn’t it? So democratising participation is a key principle in a decrapified workplace.
There are many ways in which this can be done (and I don’t rule out the leaders been elected by the team) but two things spring to mind.
The first is that there is an open and continual conversation about purpose, strategy, values and behaviours and that policy is derived through this as opposed to being handed down from on high and written in foot-high letters on the walls. As the pirate showed, if you want everyone to be fully committed to the cause then everyone had to have a voice and a vote. This also supports the principle of transparency and embeds a key idea - that no-one is as smart as everyone.
The second is that challenge is encouraged, recognised and rewarded. No-one is above being challenged and no issues is off the table. This leads to better decision making and is a sign of equality. It also stops people being arseholes.
Realising the potential of individuals
Now we come to a couple of principles that are not directly inspired by the pirates. The first of these is individual and collective growth, based on the idea that work should be about realising the potential of people, a rejection of the utilitarian view that it’s a transaction of time for money.
So in a decrapified workplace, experimentation and play are integrated into how we work because they lead to creativity and learning and so to growth. In too many workplaces, these are discouraged and even punished, with predictable consequences for creativity and the individuals.
Learning is also recognised and valued as an outcome of work and a necessary part of progress, for the individual and the organisation. Looking for a learning return on your work, rather than just a financial return, opens up many more possibilities and enables experimentation and play.
The whole purpose of the decrapified workplace is realising the potential of the people who are there. This focus on personal growth - and, as a consequence, wellbeing - drives the success of everyone, individually and collectively.
Sounds idealistic ? Well, this is the principle that has seen manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller flourish and grow, even through downturns. As their CEO Bob Chapman put it, “Our purpose is the stewardship of the people we are lucky enough to have in our care.”
Of course, the Pirates understood this too. Although they were primarily interested in getting rich, drunk and laid, they succeeded because they tried out daring new tactics, they learnt from their mistakes and they supported and encouraged each other. After all, when you are often outnumbered by your opponents, you want the people by your side to be the best they can be.
Work smart, work flexible
The final principle is to work smart. Nothing drives people mad more than being being forced to work in ways that they know are stupid, wasteful and out-dated, like having to use tech that’s worse than the stuff you use at home. So a decrapified workplace seeks to work in the most appropriate and effective way. The shift to flexible working means most things are up for grabs but here’s a few pointers as to the way forward.
This will be an async first workplace. As we’ve seen from the pandemic, if you take a conventional office approach and stick it into the virtual, digital space, it’s a car-crash. Synchronous working means all-day zoom calls that exhaust everyone. It’s nonsense. Most work can be done asynchronously, the tools and platforms are already available for this. Breaking the links with time and space make for much more flexible and adaptive working and releases efficiencies. Meeting ‘in real life’ then becomes a premium activity, which is what it should be given the costs and inconveniences it entails.
There will be minimal email. Look, it’s a great tool (I should know, I was a pioneer of its use) but it’s been abused and mis-used over the years and now it’s a curse. Too much email is unnecessary, driven by performative arse-covering and politicking, or communications that really belong on other platforms. In a decrapified workplace, emails are only used for person-to-person written communication. No broadcasts, no massive CC lists, no ‘for information’ copies and nothing that could be on a more appropriate platform.
I would also cut instant messaging and chat platforms like Slack, which are mostly distraction engines. All communication should be framed by two questions - “Is this necessary?”, “Is this the best medium for this?”.
You will go and get information when you need it, rather than be bombarded with it on the off-chance you might need it, or so someone can cover their arse. As knowledge workers, we’re already suffering from information overload. We do not need an internal firehose of information on top of that.
ALL information should be held in a way that it can be accessed AS and WHEN an individual requires it. People should NOT be getting information sent to them that they have not requested.
And finally, you will have tech that enables you to do your work rather than hinders you. Too much tech in conventional organisations is provided for the convenience of senior management and/or the teams that are providing it, be they functional or IT. It is often difficult to use, inconvenient or just plain unnecessary. You spend more time servicing their objective than your own.
In a decrapified job, the conversation starts with what you are trying to achieve and then progresses to the IT that would enable that. You do not have systems imposed upon you.
Even here, the Pirates were ahead of the game. They always had the best weapons and the fastest ships and they kept up with the latest technology because that gave them an edge. It was the role of the Quartermaster, who was equal in status with the Captain, to make sure they were well-equipped and well looked after so they could perform at their best.
A Pirate Code to Decrapify Work
So my code for the decrapified workplace has just two rules and six principles.
1. No arseholes
2. No Bullshit
5. Personal Growth
6. Smart Working
It’s just a suggestion, to be debated and developed. The Codes of the Golden Age Pirates were remarkably consistent at their core but were added to and amended over the years, from ship to ship and from voyage to voyage. Each workplace should develop its own code, reflecting and adapting to the its own particular context. It’s a living thing - the code and the workplace.
If you’re reading this and thinking it’s all a bit far-fetched, nice but unrealistic, or even just pain fanciful, with all this nonsense about Pirates, well …
There are progressive organisations who are already adopting rules and principles like these to transform their workplaces. Not just small organisations, but global, world-leading ones.
So you can choose. Make your organisation a bit less crap, or one day the pirates will come and do it for you.