How do you use digital tools to give your teams more autonomy?

Digital tools are taking up more and more space in our daily professional lives. And with that, part of the concerns about mass surveillance, the biases of artificial intelligence or even productivity statistics. But when used correctly, technology doesn’t have to be alienating.

To combat this received idea and inspire the leaders, three specialists from the organization within the structures, Ethan Bernstein, Michael Y. Lee and Joost Minnaar, took up the pen. In an article published in the columns of Harvard Business Review, they give examples of companies that use digital tools not to monitor and stress their employees… but to give them more autonomy. This strategy is of course beneficial for the teams, but also for the company, the authors of the article emphasize. So how do you blow a wind of autonomy into your teams? Here are the solutions that have already been tested and approved.

A platform for organizing… and not for spying

Buurtzorg, the largest home care provider in the Netherlands, heads a team of 10,000 people. To manage this “army”, the company has focused on setting up an internal digital platform called BuurtzorgWeb. The latter enables Buurtzorg nurses to organize themselves “in a thousand different self-managing teams”† As crazy as it may sound, each of its teams has no manager. Decisions are then made “by consensus” while hirings such as layoffs are done by “their own members”write the authors of the article.

All members registered on the platform can also exchange with each other and with each other. The idea is that everyone can report problems or questions, but also share ideas with all employees.

But in order not to throw these thousands of people into the void, Buurtzorg makes resources available to the teams so that they can manage themselves. The company is also committed to data transparency so that every group can “understand own performance, such as team productivity, customer and team member satisfaction”

For the authors of the article, the platform developed by Buurtzorg makes it possible to learn for them too “who are on the front line”† According to them, this digital tool is not a diet toy “autocratic” because it allows you to give advice “while leaving the choice as a last resort” for people in the field. Proof that democracy is good at business.

Photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash


Haier, one of the world’s largest home appliance manufacturers, has a similar workforce management system in place. The latter are in fact distributed among more than 4,000 micro-enterprises that, in addition to managing recruitment and dismissals, decide for themselves “with which other micro-enterprises can cooperate according to the dynamics of the internal market”we can read in the article.

To put things in order, Haier has also developed its own platform: EMC Workbench. One of its missions is to automate tenders and monitor the objectives inherent in each contract. “This visibility serves as a foundation to keep micro-enterprises and their employees on track with their contractual objectives; if a member does not meet his objectives, he is eventually replaced”detail the authors of the article.

Another advantage of automation: the bonuses paid to employees are based on their performance according to the calculated targets. They are automatically paid through blockchain technology. No more inattention!

For specialists, this way of working is a win-win situation: it allows Haier to manage its organization at a lower cost and give employees a margin of unprecedented decision-making in the world of work.

Photo: Firos nv / Unsplash

Bringing customers closer to staff

In companies with a hierarchical operation, decisions come from the top and are applied at the bottom, at the end of the chain. At VkusVill, a Russian distribution company specializing in convenience stores, the dynamics are very different.

The company is organized as a network of more than 1,200 convenience stores, managed independently by a team of 5 to 10 people. These are the people who make decisions about their stores, such as the products they offer and the promotions to apply. To make these decisions, VkusVill has provided its teams with a tool: an IT platform that connects stores with their customers through applications and social networks.

Thanks to these tools, the teams get comments and feedback from their customers. This allows them to continuously adjust their strategy regarding which items to order, where to place them, or at what price to sell them. You don’t have to wait for decision-making from a hierarchy that is separate from the field. Employees can act in real time thanks to their expertise and the highly specific data they have access to.

Photo: Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

Free yourself from bureaucracy with the blockchain?

Is it possible to operate without a central entity? Some companies are changing classic models by taking inspiration from… the blockchain. Because yes, this technology is not only used to exchange cryptocurrencies in complete security. It can be a solution to let several people exchange and coordinate without intervention. Goal : “oversee and manage interactions that typically require complex and centralized governance processes”† The cryptocurrency company ShapeShift just announced that it has decentralized its organization after seven years of conventional operation. This again enables employees to organize themselves autonomously and independently, while at the same time looking after the interests of the company.

The authors of the article conclude with this idea: digital tools can enable organizations and businesses to replace all those things that we don’t like to do and that we find unnecessary (such as organizing, coordinating)… such as our “human colleagues”† In other words: digital tools serve people, not the other way around.

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