He was closely involved in restructuring the management and organisation of the growing confectionery company at a stage where its growth meant by necessity it had to move away from the personal, family-centred management of its founder, Joseph Rowntree, towards a more professional culture. Under the chairmanship of Joseph's son, Seebohm, the company adopted Sheldon's proposals for a more functional style of organisation, but he tempered this with a belief, shared by the Rowntree firm's senior managers, that industry existed for more than the profit of shareholders. Sheldon held that good management was about more than technique - it should be concerned with human understanding. "The leadership of men calls for patience, courage, and, above all, sympathy." Service to the community was the primary motive and fundamental basis of industry.
Consequently, Sheldon advocated a human relations style of management which placed the individual in a human context involving a range of emotional and psychological needs. In this, he disagreed fundamentally with contemporaries such as Taylor, who saw economic need as being the primary motivator of workers. Anticipating later writers such as Mayo and Herzberg by some years, Sheldon argued that, while basic economic needs must be met, wider personal and community needs were equally important. Industry was key to shaping society and the leaders and managers of industry consequently had to work to ethical considerations which were greater than purely financial. While stressing the need for efficiency, he saw service and democracy as complementary to this - reflecting long established Rowntree practices, introduced by Joseph and extended by Seebohm Rowntree and Oliver Sheldon, such as ensuring their workers were paid a "living wage", had decent working conditions and were consulted on and involved in decision making in the workplace. Both the firm and individual directors were closely involved in a range of community work, often motivated by their Quaker religious beliefs and/or their Liberal politics. In 1904, Joseph Rowntree gave away half his personal fortune and almost two-thirds of the shares in the company to three Trusts to pursue a range of charitable, social and political work. All three continue today in the forms of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (which includes the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. All are still based in York.
Although with the passage of time, the Rowntree company was to change and develop in new ways (particularly with new brands and marketing from the 1930s on), and in 1988 was bought by Nestlé, it retained a tradition of good management throughout, in keeping with the philosophy of its founder and those around him. Sheldon explored this in his 1924 book, "The Philosophy of Management", which demonstrated his twin concerns for sound business and ethical practice when he stated: "The cost of building the Kingdom of Heaven will not be found in the profit and loss accounts of industry, but in the record of every man's conscientious service."