Josh Bersin on the Fall of Hierarchy and the Rise of Remote Work

Note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with industry leaders on the subject of managing the modern workforce. The interviews were conducted by Rob Cahill, CEO of the management-training and education firm Jhana. Find week 1 here; week 2 here; week 3 here.

Josh Bersin, founder and principle at Bersin by Deloitte, is an expert in all things corporate learning. He’s spent a lot of time researching the evolving role of management and intimately understands the challenges faced by today’s managers, so I asked

Josh to share his thoughts on how the role of manager has changed over the past few decades.

Our conversation boiled down to two main points: the shift away from top-down authority and the challenges of managing a remote workforce.

From exerting power to empowering teams

If there’s one thing about management that hasn’t changed, it’s that

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin

managers are still necessary.

“All teams and business units need managers — the role has always been to help align projects, decide who should work on what, set priorities, and of course assess people to see who is performing well and who is not working out,” Josh notes. “What has changed dramatically is the ‘power’ and ‘authority’ of managers. In the 1950s and 1960s, companies were set up with managers as the kings who decided everything — what people did, who was hired, and frankly, how people were paid.”

Josh argues that in the rapidly changing 21st century workplace this top-down model for decision-making just doesn’t work anymore.

Today, managers have to be much more empowering. They have to put in place teams that can manage themselves, and focus more on development and coaching. In many cases the ‘manager’ has far less expertise than the team, so the manager has to learn how to help the team make good decisions, align and coach people and connect the team to bigger initiatives.”

The increasingly virtual workplace

As if the flattening of traditional hierarchy weren’t challenging enough, managers are also contending with direct reports who work in completely different locations, sometimes halfway around the world.

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“Remote work is a reality today, so managers have to learn to work with people virtually, and bring people together.” Josh encourages managers of remote teams to hold regular virtual meetings, preferably over video. “I recommend the use of video cameras. You’ll be amazed at how much better the meeting becomes. You also have to be empathetic about schedules and ask people what time works for them.” You don’t want to schedule a meeting when people are asleep!

Where feasible, he also advises remote teams to make time for regular face-to-face gatherings. “Our research shows that face-to-face meetings continue to be important –- it helps people get to know each other, feel connected, and share their real feelings. Managers have to focus on bringing people together periodically.”

Being a manager has never been the easiest of jobs, and, even with all of our gadgets and devices to help, it isn’t getting any easier. To editorialize just a bit, I’ll add that the burdens of navigating this complicated new workplace shouldn’t fall solely on managers’ shoulders. As hierarchies continue to flatten and technology continues to transcend geography, it’s imperative that companies help managers find ways to make 21st century work, well, work.

About the Author

Rob Cahill is co-founder and CEO of Jhana. He founded Jhana in 2011 after personally experiencing how proper management can make or break retention and help reach company goals. Rob's mission is to provide effective and relatable management training that is available around the clock. Today, Jhana's clients have grown to many Fortune 1000's including AOL, Orbitz, CARFAX, Career Builder and Groupon. Rob was previously at Sunrun as chief of staff to the founder, helping the company scale from 20 to more than 200 employees. Previously, he was a consultant at McKinsey and Company focused on operations and strategy, including working on education strategy with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rob was one of the founding team members and three-year captain of Revolver Ultimate, the men’s Ultimate Frisbee team that has won three world championships and three national championships