During the COVID-19 pandemic, previously undervalued work was reframed as essential. Grocery clerks, heath care aides, ambulance technicians, janitorial workers, nursing home attendants — these “front line workers” would be at the bottom of most traditional organizational charts.
Hierarchies dominate leadership models and cultural narratives. In times when information equated to knowledge and power, it made sense to have the most experienced and educated people directing others.
However, two things have changed:
First, the transition to a service economy means those on the “front lines” often have the most influence on the client, patient, or guest experience.
Second, people now have unprecedented access to information and communication. Empowerment and influence no longer belong to a privileged minority.
Instead of extracting profit from underpaid “front line workers” organizations should be designed around supporting these workers. Executives, managers and employees working collectively to their mutual benefit is not antithetical to organizational success, but it does require a new perspective on organizational structure and the purpose of leadership.
There still is a need for hierarchical models in military operations, medical triage, and similar endeavors in acute or critical situations. But ask why we apply this type of structure to most organizations and employees? Should people who directly serve and care for others be placed at the bottom of our hierarchies? By reimagining the hierarchical organizational structure, and acknowledging the reality of our interdependence, we could replace hierarchical models and mindsets with Collective Organizations that empower and benefit all who serve them.
A Collective Organization’s perspective reframes the organization as a support structure, emphasizing the importance and value of front-line workers. Rather than “move up a level” as we do in a traditional hierarchy, we “move back a level” from the person having the most impact on a guest (or patient, client, etc) to the individuals supporting them. While leadership roles remain intact, the purpose of these roles shifts from a model of direction and control to one of facilitation and support.