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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Do you need your boss?

Would you work better without a boss? This blog responds to a new YouGov poll suggesting that most people think that businesses would be better run through democratic consensus and without an overall boss.

Would you work better without a boss? It seems most of us would. A striking new YouGov poll suggests that by overwhelming margins, most people think that businesses would be better run through democratic consensus and without an overall boss, and that 44% of people think they personally would work better without a boss compared to only 24% who think the reverse.

However, a world without bosses is not how most of our workplaces are organised. In fact, the UK ranks above only Lithuania in the European Worker Participation Index, which measures how well workers are guaranteed meaningful representation and voice within the workplace. Hierarchies of power, esteem and reward in turn characterise our working lives. One third of employees report being afraid in some way at work, less than half feel satisfied with the amount of involvement they have in decision-making at work, while on average real earnings are still below where they were in 2007.

This is both an ethical concern and an economic challenge. It is a concern because too many are governed in a private world – the workplace – where they have little control or say over their lives, and in which managerial prerogative has the ability to impose order and inequality upon us. Moreover, technological trends – such as the rise of intense and intrusive ‘digital Taylorism’ in which data and surveillance technologies allow employers to intimately monitor and control a person’s actions at work – threaten to accelerate these inequalities, while the power relationship between employer and employee is typically unequal, further cementing the undemocratic nature of many workplaces.

It is also an economic challenge for the UK. The way that we organise the workplace is a core determinant of how well the economy performs. As IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice has set out, the UK has deep economic weaknesses, which are rooted in how we organise our economy. Through a complex and reinforcing web of laws, corporate governance codes and business practices, we organise our workplaces in ways that concentrate power, narrow voice, and ensure our companies are overly-concerned with the interest of a small number of stakeholders, and shareholders and management in particular.

This is in turn contributes to the UK’s poor productivity growth, low levels of investment, and high levels of inequality. There is strong, consistent evidence from the UK and other advanced economies that shows that workplaces where people have a meaningful voice and say in how their firm is governed and their work organised are typically more productive, invest more, and are better at creating and sustaining equitable value over the long term.

The economic solution – and the ethical imperative – is therefore to reorganise the institutions governing the workplace to strengthen the voice and power of ordinary workers. This is inherently political. There are no ‘natural’ or preordained ways we should organise the workplace or structure how power and reward is distributed within the firm. Instead, they are shaped by our collective and democratic decisions. Politics will have to reorder the governance of the workplace if we are to improve our economic performance and give people meaningful voice and power in shaping their economic lives.

This should begin with reform of the UK’s corporate governance code to constitutionalise the interest and voice of key stakeholders in the governance of the firm, currently marginalised by the primacy of shareholders and their management agents within company law. Measures could range from guaranteeing worker representation of employees on boards, to expanding director duties to focus on long-term value creation, to creating new democratically elected employee representative committees that would have a meaningful say over company strategy and working conditions. Over the longer term, it will require dispersing and democratising ownership and governance of the economy – such as new models of collective ownership, expanding the number of co-operatively governed firms, and stronger collective bargaining rights - to ensure we all have a say in our common wealth.

In other words, if we want a world without bosses – or at least a less hierarchal and more democratic working world – we need to rewrite the rules of economy, not double down on how we currently organise the workplace.


Mathew Lawrence is a Research Fellow at IPPR and tweets @DantonsHead