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Flat hierarchies - the new non plus ultra?

16/09/2022 2022/09

You may have heard that flat structures are the way of the future. Companies are no longer about the top dog giving orders and expecting everyone to follow them, but about working with a team of equals. Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Not quite. Many companies are adopting this structure to reap its benefits - whether it's employee engagement, productivity or corporate health. Not just because it sounds and feels progressive, but because it actually makes sense from an organizational perspective. A company with flat hierarchies has numerous advantages: Employees feel empowered and take responsibility for their projects, communication is streamlined, and decisions are made more quickly. However, there are also some disadvantages to consider with this form of organization.

What is a flat hierarchy?

A flat hierarchy is an organizational structure in which all employees are considered equal, regardless of their level in the company. That is, instead of great differences in rank, most members of the organization are seen as equals. In this process, organizational members discuss and take turns working together on various projects. Typically, organizations use hierarchies to divide the company into smaller departments: Sales and Marketing, Management, Customer Service, etc. This ensures that all employees work in their respective departments and that there is no overlap. This avoids confusion, as well as employees feeling that they are not being noticed. In the case of a flat hierarchy, this is not the situation. In a company with a flat structure, employees do not report to a single supervisor, but to several supervisors. This type of company structure is designed to give employees more freedom and responsibility, in the belief that this will lead to a better overall product or service. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder and gaining more power, company members work together as equals in a flat structure. According to Entrepreneur Europe, this type of structure "allows employees to take ownership of their area of expertise and encourages them to be creative and innovative."

The team effect of flat hierarchies

As mentioned earlier, many companies that implement a flat hierarchy experience that their employees feel empowered and work together as a team. Working closely together fosters a sense of camaraderie. In addition, employees get to know each other better and can therefore work together more effectively. If you have a question or get stuck on a project, there is usually a colleague nearby who can help you. This is a huge advantage over a traditional hierarchy, where employees work in different departments and don't communicate with each other as much. In these structures, the constant attempt to climb the career ladder can lead to real competition. Due to the equality of the members, this does not happen in flat structures. Another advantage of the structure is the increased responsibility that everyone bears. This offers the opportunity to develop and advance one's own career, regardless of whether one wants to become an engineer or a manager one day. For this to happen, however, communication has to be right. 

How flat hierarchies strengthen communication

Thanks to the flatter structure, communication in particular is streamlined. The main reason for this is the shorter communication channels, as you can talk directly to your superiors. This alone reduces response times. As a result, decision-making is fast, which can be a huge advantage over competitors, especially for urgent challenges. With a steep hierarchy, all levels must first make a decision in a wide variety of meetings to even find a solution. With a flat structure, the decision is made immediately because you work with your colleagues and decide as a team. Another advantage is the more positive corporate culture. Thanks to the collaborative culture has, employees have more opportunity to feel valued and appreciated, resulting in a more positive overall feeling. In a flat structure, you have colleagues you can turn to, who understand what you are going through, and who can advise you. Lastly, a flat structure allows you to find new solutions, which increases your chances of standing out from the competition. Despite this, there are also disadvantages to consider.

Disadvantages of a flat hierarchy

One main point that is mentioned again and again is the lack of leadership. Thus, if the distribution of tasks is unclear, a deficit in productivity and effectiveness can arise. It must also be noted that this organizational structure is not for everyone. After all, flat structure involves a certain level of autonomy, but also trust. This means that it only works for employees who want to work on their own initiative and do not take advantage of the trust placed in them. Likewise, they need to be able to recognize work, rather than always having it communicated directly to them. Last but not least, not all employees simply feel comfortable in this type of environment. Some people prefer the security of a clear path of advancement and a supervisor who answers their questions. This is not the case with a flat hierarchy. It is designed for highly skilled, creative employees who can multitask, manage their own schedules, and contribute meaningfully to the company. On the other hand, managers need to be able to trust and communicate at eye level, this alone can prove challenging. 

Despite all this, a flat hierarchy still provides enough structure to manage employees, while being flexible enough for future challenges. So a shift to a flatter hierarchy can be worthwhile.

How to change a hierarchy to a flat hierarchy.

To make a change to a flat hierarchy, you need to communicate this to your employees and get them excited about it to get buy-in. This isn't something you can just force on your workforce - it has to be done with team buy-in. To do this, start by having an open dialogue. Open the channels of communication and ask your employees what they would like to see changed. This way, you'll be able to gauge how engaged your employees are with the process and what they think of a flat hierarchy. Next, hire employees who are capable of working independently. When hiring, make sure they can work without outside drive and take initiative. This will make the transition to a flat structure much easier. A key aspect is creating a culture of collaboration. It will be easier to transition your structure if your team is already used to collaboration, the essential part of a flat hierarchy. Lastly, involve your leaders and communicate the changes clearly. After all, your managers also give up some power when the levels of command are flattened. In addition to communicating with managers, you should also keep the rest of the organization informed. 

Conclusion

A flat hierarchy can be a good way to foster creativity and collaboration in a company. However, it's important to know the pros and cons before choosing this type of structure. For example, it can improve communication within the company, as well as the sense of belonging. At the same time, this form of organizational structure is not made for everyone. If you are considering a change or are still trying to figure out what is the best solution for your company, feel free to contact us for advice.
 

About the Author
Maria Kießling
Working Student Marketing

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