Anarchy in the Office

Some of the best examples I’ve seen of anarchy working have been in corporate environments. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect or even as good as a theoretical system in which a competent manager controlled everything, but they often worked reasonably well.

In a well functioning team members will encourage others to do their share of the work in the absence of management. So when the manager disappears (doesn’t visit the team more than once a week and doesn’t ask for any meaningful feedback on how things are going) things can still work out. When someone who is capable of doing work isn’t working then other people will suggest that they do their share. If resources for work (such as a sufficiently configured PC for IT work) aren’t available then they can be found (abandoned PCs get stripped and the parts used to upgrade the PCs that need it most).

There was one time where a helpdesk worker who was about to be laid off was assigned to the same office as me (apparently making all the people in his group redundant took some time). So I started teaching him sysadmin skills, assigned work to him, and then recommended that my manager get him transferred to my group. That worked well for everyone.

One difficult case is employees who get in the way of work being done, those who are so incompetent that they break enough things to give negative productivity. One time when I was working in Amsterdam I had two colleagues like that, it turned out that the company had no problem with employees viewing porn at work so no-one asked them to stop looking at porn. Having them paid to look at porn 40 hours a week was much better than having them try to do work. With anarchy there’s little option to get rid of bad people, so just having them hang out and do no work was the only option. I’m not advocating porn at work (it makes for a hostile work environment), but managers at that company did worse things.

One company I worked for appeared (from the non-management perspective) to have a management culture of doing no work. During my time there I did two “annual reviews” in two weeks, and the second was delayed by over 6 months. The manager in question only did the reviews at that time because he was told he couldn’t be promoted until he got the backlog of reviews done, so apparently being more than a year behind in annual reviews was no obstacle to being selected for promotion. On one occasion I raised the issue of a colleague who had done no work for over a year (and didn’t even have a PC to do work) with that manager, his response was “what do you expect me to do”! I expected him to do anything other than blow me off when I reported such a serious problem! But in spite of that strictly work-optional culture enough work was done and the company was a leader in it’s field.

There has been a lot of research into the supposed benefits of bonuses etc which usually turn out to reduce productivity. Such research is generally ignored presumably because the people who are paid the most are the ones who get to decide whether financial incentives should be offered so they choose the compensation model for the company that benefits themselves. But the fact that teams can be reasonably productive when some people are paid to do nothing and most people have their work allocated by group consensus rather than management plan seems to be a better argument against the typical corporate management.

I think it would be interesting to try to run a company with an explicit anarchic management and see how it compares to the accidental anarchy that so many companies have. The idea would be to have minimal management that just does the basic HR tasks (preventing situations of bullying etc), a flat pay rate for everyone (no bonuses, pay rises, etc) and have workers decide how to spend money for training, facilities, etc. Instead of having middle managers you would have representatives elected from each team to represent their group to senior management.

PS Australia has some of the strictest libel laws in the world. Comments that identify companies or people are likely to be edited or deleted.

4 comments to Anarchy in the Office

  • This sort of cooperative anarchy is said to be how Valve runs their development operations. Staff pick what projects they want to work on, and mutually coordinate their roles therein.

  • Andrew Cater

    Topical: the only modern instance of anarcho-syndicalism on a broad scale was Catalunya in the 1930s. It wasn’t a perfect paradise but it did work well enough for a while. The same area is now suing for independence seventy odd years later

  • Phil: Sounds good.

    Andrew: Well lots of areas in the EU want “independence”, not that it matters so much if they plan to remain EU member states.

    I’m really not a fan of large scale anarchism. But some anarchistic ideas can work in limited scales as long as the freedom to leave is more than theoretical.


    Someone commented by private mail referencing the above blog post I wrote 7 years ago and the above paper published by Oxford. As an aside the paper starts with “Italians websites are scruffier, often do not work properly […] e-mail addresses change with dramatic frequency” which I find rather ironic given that the site changed URLs in the past 7 years and didn’t have a redirection. Fortunately I could just Google for the paper’s authors on the Oxford site.

    The LL consensus (where both parties provide a Low quality version of what was agreed on in a contract) discussed in that paper could explain companies that have managers in an apparent conspiracy to not manage. The most epic case of which was when I was in a team of 1 and the manager who was supposedly managing only me never had time to meet me. It could also explain the case of the manager promoted after not having done one of his core tasks for over a year.

    In terms of the issue of anarchy in the office it could be regarded that L managers prefer L workers and an anarchic system ends up in a coalition of workers producing high quality work while appearing to deliver low quality work to the low quality managers who prefer it.

    According to the paper low quality workers will want to deal with low quality partners so therefore L managers will want to employ L workers. But a H worker who is disobedient (refusing bad orders) could be L by the assessment of the manager and therefore not threaten the LL hegemony.