Nora Jenkins Townson is the founder of Bright + Early, a modern HR and workplace design consultancy.
Decentralized autonomous organizations, unlike traditional companies, are owned by their collective contributors. This means that each DAO, lacking the built-in hierarchy that bosses and investment capital bring, must create its own system of decision making, rules and rewards. They can be focused on just about anything, from building the future of the web to disrupting the financial system via cryptocurrency to trying to buy the constitution.
Even if you’re watching from the sidelines, there are lessons to learn and approaches to try. Here are some key elements of decentralized work that might inspire you to try new things on your own team.
Choose your own work
Imagine logging on in the morning and spending a few hours on a project you’re passionate about. After a short break, you join a meeting to discuss your team’s mission and values. Next, you’re fixing code in an app. The difference between this and a regular workday is that all of these tasks might be being performed for a different workplace. Many workers are choosing to do away with traditional jobs and instead contribute part time to multiple teams, projects or DAOs. Polywork, a professional social network where users are tied less to one particular place of employment and more to a variety of projects and interests, has acquired thousands of users since its launch in 2021.
Of course, having multiple gigs is nothing new to creatives and freelancers. Like them, practitioners of this new way of working must fund their own health benefits and are not usually eligible for social security programs designed for full time workers. While this may be okay for high-paid tech workers, the gig economy can be actively harmful for those relying on lower paid, piecework contracts via delivery apps or clickwork. Before espousing the benefits of an open, gig-based economy, our social safety nets and collective ideas about work would have to evolve.
True remote work
Decentralized work is truly remote, with contributors logging in across time zones. Sam Spurlin, partner at organizational design firm The Ready, works with organizations, including DAOs, to help them design how they collaborate. He says when it comes to remote work, DAOs set a high bar that other organizations can learn from.
“DAOs need to be able to do work asynchronously as people are coming in from anytime, anywhere,” he says. “This is relevant to regular organizations as they navigate this hybrid, or remote-first culture.” To Spurlin, this means being diligent about documentation, getting good at sharing early versions of work, and making it easy for someone to pick up where you left off.
Many decentralized organizations try to make a flat structure work instead of a using a fixed hierarchy or organizational chart. Some take inspiration from existing practices like holacracy, a system of self-management practices where authority is distributed through self organizing teams. Some have elected leaders. Others try to create their own custom structures to ensure career growth within autonomy. Gitcoin, a decentralized organization enabling developers to earn tokens by working on open-source web projects, uses a performance review system consisting of a self-selected peer team and mentors.
Despite the lack of authority, “You should have a mentor to go to. If you need a pay raise, you should have someone that will advocate for you. Building in that companion structure of advocacy and mentorship means that folks who traditionally wouldn’t propel themselves forward because they don’t feel that agency for whatever reason, they still get that,” says Gitcoin’s People Operations manager Loie Taylor.
In our work at Bright + Early, we’ve designed a lot of compensation systems. Decentralized organizations present some of the more interesting challenges. Some have core teams who are paid full-time salaries (in regular currency), some are casual-contributor based and paid in tokens or cryptocurrency and many are a mix. Crypto market volatility, taxation, international teams and local laws and regulations can all be a challenge for these teams.
Within most decentralized environments, major decisions are based on votes, with contributors who hold more tokens in a certain project having more voting power. These decisions could be anything from which projects get funded to hiring and firing decisions. Tokens can be used in lieu or addition to standard currency to reward someone for their work, but can also be awarded to motivate contributors to do things like learn new technologies or complete team onboarding tasks, things typical workers are rarely paid to do. To democratize who is awarded more tokens, some organizations use tools like SourceCred. Using these systems, “An entire community can vote on how many tokens should go to each person,” says Ms. Taylor. “People post the work that they did, and then there’s a round of voting to distribute where those rewards are going to.”
Think this is a good way to avoid office politics? Even within this worker-empowered system, team members may not get the result they want. Earlier this year, token holders at MakerDAO narrowly voted to offboard its entire content marketing team, the entire process shared transparently with the world. A February vote to oust Ethereum Name Foundation director Brantly Millegan after homophobic tweets surfaced failed, also by a narrow margin, with 43 per cent against Millegan’s removal, 37 per cent for it, and 19 per cent abstaining.
While decentralized organizations have yet to perfect their structures and practices, their effort to think beyond business norms and focus on ideals, work one is passionate about and making an impact can inspire more mainstream businesses. While you don’t have to put everything to a vote, why not get your team more involved in business decisions, try a more self-directed review process or experiment with self-organizing teams? It could be just the creative boost your business needs.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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