By John Arenas | April 28, 2014

Defining Workplace Flexibility

Best Practices: at W.L. Gore & Associates, it’s not just the fabric that’s flexible.

W.L. Gore & Associates is best known for creating fabrics and fibers found in guitar strings, cables and waterproof apparel. Their innovative technology isn’t the only thing that sets them apart, though. The company’s unique workplace structure—or lack thereof—is exactly what has landed them on the Fortune Best Companies to Work For  list every year since the rankings began 30 years ago.  

Years of research have led business leaders to believe that a hierarchal structure may not be the answer to workplace harmony. In addition, studies reveal that traditional chains of command actually lead to a decrease in retention. While some employees respond well to this type of individualistic structure, others perform better in a team or collectivist setting.

W.L. Gore & Associates is a “team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative.” This means that there are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command and no predetermined channels of communication. In other words, they have re-written the rules for workplace norms.

So how do they make this work? Employees become associates and bosses become sponsors—an easy fix to the complexities that come with workplace hierarchy.

You may be wondering how an associate becomes a sponsor. Sponsors or leaders separate themselves by “demonstrating special knowledge, skill, or experience that advances a business objective,” and rather than being appointed, leaders are determined by “followership.” This ensures that associates support and respect their sponsors.

W.L. Gore & Associates’ workplace is a good reminder that workplace flexibility extends beyond the location of your office and the flexibility of your hours to the flexibility of your entire organization. And since the company is industrially diverse, hopefully this is a sign that workplace flexibility can be, too.

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