Ever heard about the Earth being flat? Well… there are certain people who believe that our blue planet is not the sphere depicted on TV or our geography textbooks… but is a flat disc!
While there is enough evidence that a flatter earth would not benefit us in any way (we’d be falling off the edges), ‘flatter might be better’ when it comes to organisational structures… Or is it?
Biased bosses, time-consuming paperwork and a seemingly endless list of people to chase for obtaining approvals are elements that may incite an HR professional to wonder if maintaining clear hierarchies is truly necessary or not.
The alternative to this is a flat organisation, which seems to paint a rosy picture… at least from afar!
Let’s zoom in and take a closer look to help you make a well-informed decision regarding your organisational structure.
What Is A Flat Organisational Structure?
A hierarchical structure in which the number of superior-subordinate relationships is minimised is called a flat organisation.
In order to understand it better, visualise this: there is a staircase that connects the bottom-most floor to the top floor. Keeping the height of the staircase constant, the number of steps is reduced. This process is called flattening and the result is a flat organisation. It is not possible to do away with the staircase altogether, but by increasing the height of each individual step, it is possible to bring down the number of steps.
In this analogy, each step in the staircase denotes one designation or level of authority. So, the bottom-most floor represents the junior-most (or entry-level) post in an organisation while the top floor corresponds to CXOs.
As a result of the lowered number of checkpoints, information passes faster from one level to another.
This reduces the time taken for decisions and frees up time for business development. The average span of control (the number of subordinates per superior) increases, along with the authority and responsibility borne at each level. Employees have more decision-making power and the contribution of each resource assumes greater significance.
Benefits Of A Flat Organisation
Needless to say, this type of structure has its advantages. The most impactful ones are discussed below.
1. Improves communication
Since the number of people in the chain of command is lower, information is transmitted faster. This minimises the scope for miscommunication making action points clearer. It also saves time.
2. Reduces formalities
The work that has to be done merely as part of the formalities will be lower in a flat organisation.
Multiple modes of intimation for the communicating the same idea is a redundancy that can be eliminated in a flat organisation.
For example, instead of a physical form submission, an online application and an email to obtain permission from various levels, one of the above would be sufficient.
3. Quicker responses
The response time taken for a particular idea is faster in a flat organisation. This improves the overall efficiency of the organisation.
4. Better culture
From an individual employee’s point of view, an organisation with a relatively flat hierarchy is far less frustrating to work in since the bureaucracy is very low compared to a conventional organisation.
The Downside Of A Flat Organisation Structure!
While the advantages of a flat organisational structure might seem enticing, the pitfalls of incorporating such a structure cannot be ignored!
1. Lack of accountability
The spirit of a flat organisation is sharing of responsibilities along with authority. When there are many people at the same level, the responsibilities are shared between them.
While it is not impossible to allocate tasks to each person, invariably there are some common ones which also need to be completed. If one such task is not attended to, there is no single person who can be held responsible for its non-completion.
The lack of accountability for certain areas or deliverables is a drawback of this type of organisational structure.
2. Lack of role clarity
In a large corporate with a long chain of command, each person’s role, deliverables, power and impactfulness are fairly well-defined. The fluidity is relatively low.
This rigidity brings structure and clarity. It gives a sense of direction for each employee and they need spend time on figuring out what is expected out of them.
In a flat organisation, one may have to have multiple discussions with his/her colleagues regarding the division of work. This gives scope for some friction.
There might be cases where roles by themselves, independent of the people associated, overlap. In such times, the problem of lack of role clarity is magnified.
3. Informality takes over
Humans are social animals; they have the natural tendency to form groups, just like other animals with a herd mentality. This leads to two major issues in the context of flat organisations.
Firstly, when a cluster is formed, the ones who are extroverts or are power-hungry might arrive at an informally superior position, even if they are not particularly good at their work or have other commendable skills that impact the tasks. This takes away the limelight from the real performers and leads to an unfair hierarchy that is not formalised.
Secondly, informal interactions can supersede formal communication. Since everyone at a particular level is equal, the power lies with everyone to go around and make conversation. This can strengthen the grapevine.
A strong informal network can make or break the organisation’s culture and impact employee productivity. If it has a negative impact, it can even cause the turnover to increase.
4. Scope for performance to dwindle
A flat organisational structure gives scope for the quality of output, efficiency and effectiveness to dwindle. This is because people usually find it uncomfortable to question or exert authority over the way others work when they are at the same level. The lack of formal authority can contribute to sluggish performance.
Are Flat Organisations Feasible For All Organisations?
Clearly, a flat organisational structure is not suitable for every organisation. As an HR professional, deciding whether to adopt this or not is a crucial decision that needs to be given adequate thought.
Generally, this type of structure works well in small organisations where employees are highly passionate and motivated.
However, nothing is set in stone. It is possible to adopt this style by bringing about a few changes.
The first and foremost is establishing a culture where all employees feel respected and appreciated regardless of their designation. This will automatically boost their morale.
The second is to imbibe a deep sense of ownership so that they are proactive about their work.
Thirdly, providing clarity on all aspects of work, analysing the overlaps and dividing the work equally at a granular level can reduce the scope for confusion or underperformance.
All this needs a lot of time, energy and effort, and might become too overwhelming in the case of larger organisations! Perhaps, when it comes to them, and our blue planet, being flat may not be the best thing!