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Join Pim De Morree, co-founder of Corporate Rebels, on the stage at Prodacity as he delves into the transformative world of progressive organizations that have revolutionized their work environments. Pim shares his journey and insights from various companies that have successfully hacked bureaucracy and created thriving, employee-centric cultures. Discover practical examples, innovative strategies, and be part of the movement to reinvent the workplace.


Pim De Morree (00:15):

Good morning everyone.


Very nice to be here today. This session, I'm going to take you on a journey around the world along progressive organizations that we've been researching that have radically reinvented their ways of working. You talked about hacking bureaucracy as a theme for the day. We have looked and researched organizations in depth on how they've been able to do that, doing away with all the frustrating ways of working that so many organizations are still struggling with today. So before doing that and before sharing some practical examples of companies that have completely reinvented themselves, I'm going to talk a little bit about Corporate Rebels itself to give you a bit of an intro into what we do, but most importantly, why we do what we do.


You see the picture here, that's myself and Joost. Joost is also in the room and we'll be joining the book signing as well.


And we started Corporate Rebels back in 2016. And it was born out of frustration. Frustration with the workplaces that we experienced before starting our own company. And we had both studied in a completely different field than what we are working in today. Myself, I studied industrial engineering and I went to work for a company where I could do exactly the thing that I had studied for. So in terms of work content, I loved the work that I was doing. However, the way of working of the company I worked for, was terribly frustrating. The fact that there was a whole lot of bureaucracy, a huge amount of management layers, managers telling you what to do instead of being able to make your own decisions and taking any entrepreneurial ideas inside the organization. So I got completely fed up with it after working for that organization for three years. Joost had a similar experience in a totally different field, and a totally different company.


He studied nanotechnology, so a lot nerdier than me, and started to work for a company where he could do the thing he studied for. Same story. He loved the work, the content of the work, but he was frustrated by this big bureaucratic organization that he worked for. So we came together, we have been friends since we were 12 years old, and we said to each other, "how come that after three years of working, we are already completely fed up with it?" What can we do to actually make our work more fun? And we only saw one solution to it. We said to each other, "why don't we quit our jobs? And why don't we start looking for organizations that are working in totally different ways to understand if and how work could be organized in a completely different way?" So that's what started Corporate Rebels back in 2016, and that's what evolved into what we are doing now with Corporate Rebels.


We call it "making work more fun." Everything we do with the people working in our company is researching progressive companies, sharing how they work, and then hoping that more organizations around the world will radically reinvent themselves into more fun and more thriving organizations. So today, we're going to share some of these examples of companies, and some of the research that we've been doing for the past eight years. Before diving into that, however, I want to make sure you get the problem. So the problem that we experienced is not a problem that just the two of us experienced. Unfortunately, a lot of people around the world are experiencing the same frustration at work. Not because they dislike the content of their work, but mostly because of the way organizations are set up. And let me very briefly and quickly show you some of the problems that organizations today are experiencing.


So, for example, if you look at engagement in the workplace, the stats shown here, done by Gallup, researched by Gallup, showed that just 15% of the world's population is actually engaged at work. So those are the people truly passionate about the work and their work environment. 67%, so two-thirds, is disengaged. They come into the workplace, do what they're being told, but are not truly passionate about the work that they do. And then very interesting category, 18% is actively disengaged. So these people dislike their work environment to such an extent that they start sabotaging the workplace. For example, calling in sick while they're not, not doing the work they actually should be doing. Nowadays, of course, it's quite popular to spend your time on social media instead of actually doing the work you're hired to do. So all kinds of things that are counterproductive to what the organization is doing.


Unfortunately, there's more. If you look at the burnout symptoms, that's a huge problem in today's organizations, and it's not changing whatsoever. So even during the pandemic, this has increased, and the problems with people experiencing some level of burnout have actually increased. So we're not making any progress there yet. And then there's another painful statistic. 40% of employees, according to this research, feel that their job makes no useful contribution to society. So people spend a lot of their time at work, but they don't feel that it actually contributes something meaningful to the people in the society around them. Which is painful for these individuals and also for the organizations they work for. We look at it from a very personal perspective. We believe that if you spend so much time at work, this should also be time that you thoroughly enjoy. Where you can do the thing you love to do, where you can contribute to something that you truly believe in, and that gives you the feeling that you actually add value to the world around you.


But, let's say you don't care about that at all and happiness of employees is not something that interests you. Still, if the success of your organization, whether that's profitability, productivity, or making an impact into what your organization is trying to do, if that's of interest to you, then still it is beneficial to focus on creating a workplace where people love to be, simply because the two go hand in hand. And once again, there's a whole bunch of research showing this. So, for example, if you compare engaged and motivated teams and organizations to ones that are disengaged and demotivated, there's a big difference in performance. For example, productivity and profit are much higher when people are more engaged at work, while absenteeism, accidents and defects are quite a lot lower when people are more engaged at work. Makes total sense, but especially if you're a bunch of engineers, it's nice to know that there's also data to back up a certain feeling.


So here you have it. This is, more or less, the business case for Corporate Rebels. Workplaces suck. We need to do something about it to not just make people happier at work, but also to create more successful and thriving organizations.


So we set out to visit pioneering organizations around the world, and we've been doing that for more than seven years now, almost eight years, visiting more than 150 of these organizations that work in a radically different way, compared to what most people are used to. So companies that have ditched bureaucracies, that have completely demolished their hierarchies, and have given instead, people the freedom and the entrepreneurship to make their own decisions and actually create an environment where people excel and become truly passionate about the work and their work environments. So visiting over 150 organizations, I need to tell you one important thing. When we talk about new ways of working or more progressive ways of working, a lot of people tend to look at Silicon Valley and we look at all these startups that people cannot stop talking about, but I can tell you there are much more interesting examples, in much more boring sectors, that are doing much more interesting things when it comes to reinventing how they work.


Today we're going to talk about a huge manufacturing company that has completely reinvented itself, and we're going to talk about a government organization that has also been able to radically reinvent the ways of working. So, before going into what are some of the main trends of these organizations, I would like to talk briefly about where Corporate Rebels is at the moment. Because I left out the most embarrassing part of the story, which is that we started in 2016 with an idea of making work more fun, the idea of traveling around the world to visit these pioneers, to research them, and to learn from them. But we did not have a business model at all. We just had a little bit of savings in the bank. So, in order to cut costs as much as we could, Joost and I moved into one apartment. But it gets even worse.


We moved into one bedroom to save as much cost as we could, and that then became the Corporate Rebels headquarters. And from there, we would fund our travels around the world and visit all these pioneering organizations. Luckily, especially for our wives and kids, that's not the case anymore, and things have developed quite a bit since then. So in 2016, we started to write blog posts on progressive organizations and everything we learned. That got picked up quite a lot in media outlets all around the world, and a lot more people then came to our website to understand how some of these organizations were reinventing their ways of working. Therefore, in 2017, we started organizing meetups across the globe for people to come together to help them understand and learn from each other how they could reinvent their ways of working. 2018, we added academic research to the mix, especially Joost doing a lot of work with, for example, Harvard, to bring case studies of these pioneering companies into education to make sure that the next generation of leaders is trained in alternative approaches to organizing a company.


2019, we published our book, which we will be signing afterwards, which has now been translated into 10 different languages, which has a lot of examples of companies that work in a different way. 2020, interesting period. When the pandemic hit, back then before the pandemic, a lot of companies would say, well, working remotely or giving people more flexibility in where they worked - it's nice that it works at these pioneering firms, but it will never work for us. And they had a whole bunch of reasons why it would never work. Well, two weeks into the pandemic, everybody could see, "well, maybe it is actually working for us to some extent and maybe finding a better balance, a healthier balance between remote work and office work is something that could benefit our people and our organization." Interestingly, it also opened up the discussion around all kinds of other things, because now the discussion was not just about working location, but when you change your working location and you're not physically together the entire day, you might also want to change the way you communicate, the way you distribute decision-making, the way you go about sharing ideas with one another.


So all kinds of ways of working were challenged because the pandemic forced us to think differently about work. 2020, we also launched a online learning platform for companies around the world to come together to learn from each other and understand how to make work more fun. And then in '21, we launched a investment fund called Krisos. And through that fund we buy traditionally organized companies, and then transform them into a radically progressive organization, showing that it's both interesting from a human perspective, but also from a financial perspective to turn companies around and to completely reinvent how they work.


Now I want to dive very briefly into the main trends that we've been seeing from these visits to 150 plus pioneering organizations. It is important to understand that this is not a model, it's not something every organization needs to implement. A lot of customization is important and people need to understand that every organization is different. All people in those organizations are different.


So it's about jointly figuring out with your people what is the best way forward for us, and how can we actually improve the way we work together? So I'm going to go through them, share some practical examples of how companies put them into practice. And I'm starting with the first one, which is a move from profit to purpose and values. And I know here in the US this may be a bit more radical than it is where we are from in Europe where of course the idea of shareholder premise is still much more alive than it is in other places around the world. But for these pioneering companies, making money is not the most important reason they exist. They actually exist to contribute to something more valuable than just that. So they have a clear purpose, they have a clear set of values, and they use the profit to get closer to that purpose.


But existing as an organization is not, or making profit is not why these organizations exist. Patagonia, of course, is one of the examples that come to a lot of people's minds when it's about a purpose-driven organization that uses its money to actually get closer to their purpose.


The second one is a move from hierarchical pyramids to a network of teams. So how can you break down the hierarchical structure, especially for bigger companies where on average they have eight or nine layers of hierarchy? And how can you instead, form into a network of team structure where you break down the hierarchy to just two or three layers, with senior leadership mostly still setting the direction of the company, but then allowing this network of teams to make their own decisions, and to become highly entrepreneurial?


The third trend is a move from directive leadership to supportive leadership.


So how can you get away from the idea that bosses are the ones who know everything best, and are always the ones who make important decisions? And how can you instead, create an environment where leaders are supporting their teams to excel?


The fourth one is from planning and predicting to experimenting and adapting. Constantly trying new things makes much more sense in a complex environment, then trying to predict what will happen the next year, the next three years, the next five years. That's why these companies focus on constantly experimenting with product services and ways of working.


The fifth one is a move from rules and control and thick bureaucracy to freedom and trust. As human beings, we have a lot of freedom outside of work: buying a house, raising our children, organizing things with our communities, and we love this responsibility and we love this freedom.


But then we come into the workplace, and in many cases, we're not allowed to spend $500 of company money before we get five signatures. This doesn't make any sense. So we're not tapping into that creativity that people love and care about in the workplace.


The sixth one is a move from centralized authority to distributed authority. So how can you push decision-making as far to the frontline as possible? So people in close contact with customers and suppliers are actually the ones who are making decisions, not the people who are hidden away in their fancy corner offices, and who are far removed from what the customers are actually wanting.


The seventh one is a move from secrecy to radical transparency. So how can you open up all kinds of information in the company so that people can make the best decisions? For example, opening up company financials for everyone to see, opening up salaries so everyone can see what other people in your organization are earning.


A lot of companies go pretty far on this, and allow their people to understand everything that's happening in the company, so they can actually make the best decisions for the company as well. And then the final one is a move from job descriptions, to talents and mastery. So how can you get away from the idea that you can detail what a person will be working on every single day? And instead, how can you focus on the talents of people and then give them the opportunity to create their own ideal job by picking up various roles that fit their unique and individual talents? So that's a very, very brief summary of what these progressive organizations do different than the more traditional ones.


Now let me dive into an example. The first example I want to share is a company called Haier. You might be familiar with them. They make your refrigerators, washing machines, all kinds of white goods nowadays, a lot more. It's a Chinese company, a big Chinese company. They're the largest white goods manufacturer in the world. And, a bit closer to your home, a few years ago in 2017, they acquired General Electric appliances, and have also been reinventing that organization since they acquired it.


But let's look at China first. So what they have been doing there is pretty remarkable. And the CEO Zhang Ruimin has been leading that transformation into a completely different organizational structure, and it shows a lot of the eight trends that have just been talking about. The reason they wanted to change is because they felt the burden of bureaucracy. People were disengaged. People were not taking any entrepreneurial decisions. Everybody was scared to try something new - to experiment - because they knew they would be punished for doing anything that was outside of their job description.


So there was not much innovation. People weren't listening to what the customer actually wanted. The organization became too slow. A lot of things that people struggle with every single day in organizations around the world. But at Haier they said, "we need to change this. We need to reinvent ourselves to be successful in the future, to attract new people, to make sure that we can actually move as quickly as our customers need us to move." So, they started on this transformation, and what they ended up in is now an 80,000-employee organization that spread into more than 4,000 what they call, microenterprises. So small companies that act as if they are a completely separate legal entity. So they have their own P&L, and they have a lot of decision-making power and authority to make their own decisions. And they work as if it's a huge network of startups and smaller companies, that in many cases need to collaborate with each other and form partnerships to deliver products and services to customers that they cannot deliver only by themselves.


On average, these microenterprises have 10 to 15 employees and have a lot of decision-making power that we'll dive into in a little bit, that shows you how much authority these microenterprises actually have since that transformation. You can see the numbers here, both profit and revenue, have increased quite dramatically since implementing this model. But I think the most interesting one is that they've been able to create a lot of new value because of the entrepreneurial ideas that popped up in the organization. And because they provided a platform for employees to actually become entrepreneurs, they have been able to go off into all kinds of industries, come up with all kinds of new products and services, that would never have happened if they were still organized in a more traditional way. So very briefly, looking at these microenterprises, and zooming into them a little bit, they have three crucial rights that more traditional teams in organizations don't have.


The first one is on strategy. And these microenterprises have the opportunity to decide for themselves which business model to implement. So how to make their money. Which partnerships to form both with internal microenterprises or external companies, and which opportunities in the markets to pursue. Secondly, they have a lot of freedom when it comes to people decisions. They are the ones responsible for hiring and firing, not the HR department. It's the teams, the microenterprise themselves who can do it. They have also the power to distribute roles and responsibilities within the team, focusing on the main talents in their team and making sure that the jobs are picked up by the people with the most talent and interest in that specific area. And there's also leadership selection. So, if people feel that the leader of their microenterprise is underperforming, they can put that person out of their position, and replace them with someone they think is a better leader for their team.


So a much more democratic system, compared to the more dictatorial system, that many traditional organizations still have in place. And then the final one, there's also a lot of authority around reward distribution. So, for example, they can distribute shares in their microenterprise. So they're really seen as separate legal entities where people can benefit from the success of their micro enterprise by getting a profit share. They have bonus payments as well if those microenterprises succeed. And they can even determine themselves what the salary levels are of each individual working in that microenterprise. So it sounds pretty radical. It is pretty radical, but it's not that different from what many small companies are doing in startup environments, for example, where they also have to collaborate, make these kinds of decisions themselves to make sure they are successful as a team or as a business.


But the interesting thing about Haier, they've done it on a massive scale inside their organization, creating this platform for entrepreneurship for people to work in a completely different way.


Now, I want to zoom into a very different type of organization where you also would not necessarily expect a thing like this to happen. It's the Belgium Ministry of Social Security. So a diehard government organization based in Belgium that's known, especially for us Dutch people, to be very bureaucratic and hierarchical. And we went to visit this ministry and talk to both Frank Van Massenhove who has been leading this transformation, but also many people that were now working in the organization about the radical transformation they've made. And they also changed similar things as to what Haier was doing, implementing many of the eight trends that I've been talking about before. Why? Well, because they were struggling with the same problems that many other organizations are struggling with.


The same things we've seen at Haier too, the huge amounts of bureaucracy, the hierarchy that was getting in the way. The result? People were calling in sick, a lot of them were calling in sick, people were leaving the organization. It was hard for them to attract new talent. And productivity was extremely low. So they needed to do something differently, and similar to Haier, they started to reinvent themselves over a certain period of time.


This time, I want to dive a little bit more into their transformation approach. So what have they actually done to make sure they could realize this new type of organization? And I want to zoom into four different steps on their transformation roadmap. So the first thing they did was a preparation period of six months, and they said, "we have to look at what our new organizational design will look like."


Let's look at pioneering companies around the world, how they've reinvented themselves, and let's think about how we could apply some of these lessons into our company. So preparing that for some time, they looked at what is the overall organizational design going to look like in this new type of environment, if we want to get rid of our hierarchy and our bureaucracy? What is the team size going to be and what kind of roles do we need in each team to be successful? And what are some of the main metrics? So when talking about radical transparency, it's important that each team understands how they're performing. So there's radical transparency around the performance metrics, and each team also in this organization, can see how successful they are compared to other teams in the organization. So that was the first six months, in preparation. Then they said, "now we need to go into experimentation."


We have no clue whether what we came up with in theory, will also work in practice. So before going into this with our entire organization of 2000 people, we want to start small. So they gave 10% of the organization the opportunity to experiment. They said, "let's test this new design, put it into practice, and let's keep adjusting it as we learn from actual practice and how things are working out for us." Then the third one was the implementation phase. Looking at a two-year period of really putting this into practice on a bigger scale. So in the most pioneering part of this specific ministry, they started to work like this, constantly evaluating themselves, measuring what was successful and what wasn't, and then updating their way of working as they went on. And then they had the scaling phase to other parts of the organization so everybody would actually be involved in this, and also trying to spread it as much as possible to other ministries to benefit more government organizations from this new approach to work.


So, to briefly summarize where they ended up, the organization went from eight levels of hierarchy to just three, from top down appointed bosses to self-selected managers, from a place where they were expected to come into the office from nine to five and do exactly what was in their job description. Nowadays, these civil servants have the freedom to decide for themselves when they work, where they work, with whom they work, and also how many hours a week they work. They have full-time contracts, but they don't track the amount of hours people work. They say, "if you need 20 hours to do your work and still be productive, why should we care about the actual hours that you put into this? In the end, we hire you to deliver results and outcomes and not to sit an X amount of hours behind your computer." So it's a completely different type of organization that they've been able to create.


Let me show you very briefly some of the results. Similar things that we're seeing across the world, in many different types of organizations. Annual productivity increased with more than 10% for 10-plus years. Well before the transformation, they had lots of problems with a lot of people calling in sick. Nowadays it's the organization in Belgium with the lowest amount of absenteeism. So in terms of engaging people and making sure they love to come to work and contribute to the organization, they've been doing a tremendous job.


Before the transformation, when they put out a job vacancy, just three people replied on average. Nowadays 57 people reply on average, which allows them to select from a much wider talent pool, which makes it easier for them to hire better people for their company or their organization. The same for students who've just come out of university and who've done government studies and want to work for one of the ministries.


They have to give out their preference for which one they'd love to work most. Before the transformation, this was 18% who selected this specific ministry. Nowadays it's 92%. So once again, attracting young talent has become much easier for them. And another interesting fact, they won the Gender Balanced Organization Award without putting a single gender policy in place. So we asked them, how do you think you have been able to create such a diverse organization without focusing on enforcing any policies? And they were quite clear. They said, "well, we give people the freedom to work whenever and wherever they like, so whatever priorities they have in life outside of work, they can organize it themselves. We don't need to tell them where to work and when to work. So whether they have kids to take care of or whether they have other weird hobbies they want to tend to, that's up to them."


"We give them the freedom to organize it, and then they can organize their working lives and make sure they're integrated whatever way suits them best." So once again, a story of an organization, in an environment where you would not necessarily expect a thing like this to happen, that has been able to transform itself and also reap the benefits quite significantly.


So one more short story I want to share, because among you, there might be people working in huge organizations. There might be people who don't have the CEO position and who don't feel they have the power to actually make a significant change in how your company or organization works. Well, let me share you one more example that shows that it can be done even if you're not the CEO of a company, but you can still influence the way of working, not just of your team, but of the entire company.


And it's the story of It's a large Dutch retailer. So it's more or less the Dutch version of Amazon. They're very successful, which is why Amazon in the Netherlands is not so successful, and they have been always quite successful in their products and services. And Harm Jans, he had been reading a bit about companies that I've been talking about today and some others. He was inspired by it, and he said to his team members, "I would like to do something similar in our company too. I believe this transition to a more progressive way of working will benefit not just us, but also the organization as a whole." So they started to look more into what they could change. Then created a nice pitch deck, and he was a team member of just a 20-people logistics team in this huge company, and they made their pitch deck, went up to the CEO and said, "this is what we believe is the future of"


Are you in this? And do you give us the opportunity to actually start experimenting with new ways of working? And the CEO listened to it and he said, "well, love your idea. Love the fact that you take initiative, but we're not going to do it. We're already very successful. Why should we make such a radical transition without knowing whether that will actually benefit us or not?" So obviously, disappointed, Harm went back to his team, shared the outcome of the meeting, and said, "well, there's now two things we can do. We can either listen to the CEO and continue working like we've always done, or we can experiment with new ways of working inside our team. First show the success hopefully, and then see if we can bring more teams on board of this transformation." And of course, they took that second path, otherwise I would not be talking about them today.


And they started their experimentation phase - changed their meeting structures, the way they made decisions in the team, redistributing roles and responsibilities, and creating much more freedom for employees to make their own decisions around, for example, where and when to work. These experiments were very successful, both in terms of productivity and engagement. So they decided to communicate to others in the organization what they had been doing, and what the success had been for them so far. And then a lot of teams picked up the phone, called them and said, "can you help us to implement it too? It sounds like a lot of fun. Plus we would love to be more successful in what we do too." So they started to become coaches for other teams in the organization, and in a period of two years, they have been able to transition 70% of the teams in the organization into this new way of working. Harm was then promoted to become the chief people officer of the organization and helped more of the transition on things that he couldn't influence before.


So now he was talking about organizational structure. He was talking about pay structure and incentives in the organization, and giving everyone in the organization more freedom to make their own decisions. So they've been constantly developing since, and it shows the power of starting small, finding a couple of people around you who are just as excited as you are about new ways of working. Start testing, start experimenting, learn from what you experiment with, ditch the things that are unsuccessful, and keep the things and build on the things that are successful. And then try to set up a internal change movement of others in the organization who want to jump on board. So, that's also my main message for the day. We've given you some inspiration of what companies are doing. In the book, are many more examples of what organizations around the world are doing differently, and we need more people like yourselves to become a rebel inside your organizations.


We've seen the terrible statistics that I showed at the beginning about the low levels of engagement, the fact that a lot of people are burned out, and almost the majority of people feeling that their job makes no use for contribution to society. So we need to change something, and we need to have more people like yourselves, standing up to the status quo, challenging it, experimenting with new ways of working, like the ones that we've been talking about today, and then radically reinvent what work could look like for organizations. So my final message to you is, or my invitation to you is, please become a rebel inside your organization and let's change the way of working of more companies around the world. Thank you very much for attention.