How To Work Without Managers? Here's How!
We're in an industrial area in Roermond in The Netherlands. Roermond is the home to Edalco Services, a professional cleaning company that “does things differently”. We are here to find out how different they are.
Waiting for us in the warehouse is Barry Lutgens – co-founder and co-owner. He tells us about his unusual approach to running a company without managers.
Brothers Kevin and Barry founded Edalco Services in 2011 after careers in other cleaning companies. Their company delivers all kinds of cleaning services – from office window cleaning to highly specialized work in clean rooms at high tech firms. They currently employ 80 people.
The first story Barry shares is telling. It’s about his frustrations working, previously, for a traditional cleaning company.
Barry: “At 6 am on the day I started work as a window cleaner, I jumped on the bus that would take us to our client. I wanted to sit in the front of the bus. But when I sat down, my neighbour, a foreman, told me I wasn’t allowed to sit there. I had to sit in the back of the bus. The front seat was only for the foreman and the second foreman. I was 16 years old. I was well brought up. It was my first job. So, I took a seat in the back of the bus.”
This wasn’t his only frustrating experience in a traditional organization. “At the last company I worked for, I ran a regional branch. Once a month I visited headquarters to discuss the business numbers. I always wore the company sweater, as I liked to visit the guys working on site. I thought it was important to visit them regularly. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that in a suit and tie.”
“After one of my visits to HQ, I received a letter with an official warning. I was not to come into the office if I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie. They referred to my contract. It stated clearly that I had to wear a suit and tie.”
That’s when I quit. Together with my brother, we founded a cleaning company: a company based on common sense – not on stupid, childish rules. Now, 7 years later, we employ 80 people.
“The rules were so childish. They thought that because I was a manager I had to wear a suit and tie—even if I had to work in the mud. That’s when I thought: 'This is not who I want to be. I’m not going to let anybody tell me what to do and how to dress.' I thought I was perfectly capable of deciding on what to wear in which situation.”
Barry: “That’s when I quit. Together with my brother, we founded a cleaning company: a company based on common sense – not on stupid, childish rules. Now, 7 years later, we employ 80 people.”
A company based on common sense
From the start, Barry and Kevin knew they wanted to set their company up differently. And that’s exactly what they did. The result is an organization that you might not expect to see in the cleaning business.
Simplicity instead of hierarchy
Edalco doesn’t have layers of hierarchy like traditional organizations. Barry: “It’s just the founders, a few people in the office taking care of administrative tasks, and cleaners. That’s it.”
So there are no foremen, second foremen, assistant managers, managers, regional directors and so on. Barry continues: “With this simple structure, we actually listen to our employees. Communication doesn’t go through layers of hierarchy. It goes straight from the employee to us or to the administrative staff. There are no procedures or protocols in between.”
Barry: “We focus on doing what we are hired for—cleaning. While many cleaning companies focus on a predefined schedule, we focus on the results. We don’t care if they checked all the boxes in their schedule. We care about the end goal. Is it clean?”
“A cleaning schedule might dictate sweeping floors twice a week and cleaning toilets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But if the toilet is dirty on Tuesday, it would be stupid to wait until Wednesday to clean it.”
This sounds like stating the obvious. But you’d be surprised to find out how much of this kind of stupidity occurs in today’s organizations.
Barry: “Results-based cleaning is not only in the contracts with our clients, but also the way employees act. If our cleaners run into a problem, they are expected to take the necessary action. For example, if a machine breaks down they have to figure out a way to get it fixed. If they don’t, they can’t clean and therefore won’t achieve the result—a clean property.”
“In many traditional organizations cleaners report a problem and wait until it is resolved. They take no ownership of the problem, and often are not allowed to. That’s somebody else’s job.”
The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broo
Many organizations standardize equipment to capture “efficiencies” and “economies of scale”. This means Purchasing dictates the equipment front-line staff must use—even if those in Purchasing have no expertise in performing front-line activities.
Barry: “We don’t believe in this. We know our employees are the experts in cleaning. They know how to do their job properly—and the best equipment to use. That’s why we let them decide what they will use.”
“If one person prefers Brand A, he or she can use Brand A. If another prefers Brand B, Brand B it is. It’s that simple. We’re not telling them how to do their job.”
With this increased responsibility and accountability comes a higher salary. At least that’s what Edalco believes. They pay their personnel 15% more than competitors.
With this increased responsibility comes a higher salary. That's why Edalco pays their personnel 15% more than competitors. How do they afford that? That's easy, they don’t have to pay for any managers, their offices, or their fancy suits.
How do they afford that? Barry: “Well, that’s easy. We don’t have to pay for any managers, their offices, or their fancy suits.”
Edalco also focuses on employing people who are disadvantaged in the labor market. Barry has a separate foundation to strengthen this ideal. It’s cleverly called SHIT-JOB, an acronym that stands for: Schone Hygienische Innovatieve Toiletten – Jongeren Onder Begeleiding (in English: clean, hygienic, innovative toilets – youth under guidance).
This foundation provides temporary toilets for all kinds of festivals. The cleaners are young, unemployed people who have a hard time finding jobs. SHIT-JOB creates opportunities for them to gain experience in the world of work.
Results to show for it
This unusual cleaning company offers powerful lessons in how organizations can run more simply, with more common sense and with more purpose.
And it’s not just an idealistic dream on what work could be like. For a start, Edalco’s staff are extremely loyal – they stick with the company for a very long time. Why not? They have levels of autonomy and responsibility far beyond what other organizations offer. Plus, employees at Edalco earn good salaries.
Another indicator of Edalco’s success is an extremely low level of sick leave. Barry: “At the moment we have 1.5% absenteeism compared to an industry average of around 10%. And the 1.5% is actually due to two ladies currently on maternity leave.”
A pioneer in simplicity
It’s great to see the success of Edalco's unusual approach. Even more powerful is that Edalco shows how a common-sense approach works in an environment where many wouldn’t expect it to be possible.
The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom
While we’ve regularly seen the opposite in workplace visits around the world, many continue to argue that self-management (and other radical ways of working) cannot work in companies with (mainly) low-skilled workers. The beauty of Edalco’s story is that, once again, this out-dated prejudice is demonstrably nonsense.
For more radical content on self-management in unexpected environments, check out some of our earlier stories:
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The idea of self-management tends to be received with both interest and cynicism. Amongst the varied reactions, there is one recurring doubt that I hear time and time again. That doubt is deep. That doubt, is trust.