Thinking About Flattening

In a tight labor market, where it may be hard to fill all the jobs on your table of organization, it can be tempting to identify some of those jobs as unnecessary and simply eliminate them. Very often, we focus more on removing management levels rather than front-line workers or client-facing staff. We continue to see a push toward flatter organizations, but if that’s going to work, we need to acknowledge the potential downsides and be ready to overcome them.

There are certainly some benefits to be gained from flattening your organization (that’s why so many people are doing it!). You can become more agile by cutting layers of oversight and reducing the time it takes to make a decision. Your junior employees have more opportunity to develop on the job by taking on more authority and responsibility than their peers in other organizations might. And of course, you save money by having fewer people on the payroll.

But for this to work, you need to make some other changes beyond simply cutting positions. Consider:

    With fewer people to make decisions, you may need to reduce the number of decisions that have to be made. Look at your policies and procedures and see where review and approval are currently needed, and see how you might change your policies to cut back on that oversight. For example, if a manager has to review and sign off on every travel expense claim, then you may need to drop that requirement if you’re dropping managers. If your hotel’s front-desk employees have a maximum cost amount when correcting guests’ problems before they have to get a manager, then perhaps you will have to increase that limit when you have fewer managers.

    Even if you change some policies, you will still have decisions that need to be made and fewer people to make them. You should review and adjust job descriptions to spread the decision-making authority and other work around. If your goal is to be more agile, you cannot afford to create bottlenecks by simply loading up the remaining managers with more work. To get the full benefits of flattening you will need to change the way you work, and that means people’s roles are going to change. Don’t let them be confused by what they need to do; rewrite job descriptions as needed, and if you’re adding more to their plate, then you should consider reviewing their salary, too. If you start giving people more work without more pay, you may find those people walking out the door.

    A lot of mentorship gets done by managers, and as you cut some of them, you’ll have fewer people to provide it (and those who are left may have less time to do it). Consider hiring professional coaches to work with your employees if you are reducing your internal mentoring capacity. That’s not to say you should be letting them off the hook entirely – your remaining managers’ corporate knowledge is especially useful for helping junior employees trying to figure out how to work within the culture of the organization – but some areas of focus, such as discussions about professional development, may need to be farmed out to others.

There can be a lot of benefits to flattening your organization, but you cannot just rush into it blindly. None of this is to say that the potential costs of flattening mean you shouldn’t do it, but instead, you should take steps to boost the value of your changes while reducing any costs associated with them. Don’t just flatten your management because it’s a neat trend; do it in a way that will really help.

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