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The Debate: Are flat workplace structures a good idea?

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City A.M.’s new weekly feature takes the fiercest water-cooler debates and pits two candidates head to head before delivering The Judge’s ultimate verdict.

Are flat workplace structures a good idea?

Yes: They remove corporate red tape and inspire creativity

In a world dominated by corporate hierarchy, flat structures are the way forward. One of the top reasons is this structure can help businesses make faster decisions.

We’ve all been there: the layers of sign-off to push something through. A flat structure can prevent these bureaucratic hurdles. This isn’t about rushing decisions, it’s about removing red tape. This also means that decisionmaking itself is decentralised. 

The trend that dominated 2023 was ‘quiet quitting’, where employees do the bare minimum to get by. But a flat structure means everyone has to play a role in the success of the business, which encourages freedom and accountability. 

It also removes corporate bureaucracy, allowing employees to approach different levels without fearing that “management is too busy.”

It’s important to remember that this is also the first time five generations are in the workplace. Enforcing the traditional ways of working prohibits innovation and reinforces hierarchy, rather than learning from each other.

The key thing to note is a flat structure does not mean a lack of structure. For example, I’m part of a flat structured company, but work with high-achieving and hungry colleagues. These people still want to know where they are today and what they need to do to progress. You still have to provide a clear framework for progression. 

For a flat structure to also succeed, it must be backed by genuine open-door policies, championed by the likes of the CEO. Without these elements, a flat structure risks becoming another corporate buzzword.

Jonathan Boakes is managing director at Infinum

No: Hierarchy was good enough for the Romans

Although the term may conjure up a revolutionary reverie in which one dethrones one’s boss and seizes the means of production, it is mostly misleading. 

It is virtually impossible to run a company without some form of hierarchy. There will almost always be a founder, and they will not take kindly to being told they have equal say to the intern. Likewise, a chief economist to a new graduate. That’s okay: not all opinions are valid and it shouldn’t be controversial to posit that experience matters.

So, in reality, flat leadership structures – pioneered by Silicon Valley startups – squash rather than crush the age-old hierarchical structure. Managers aren’t banished, but tend to be given larger, looser remits creating confusion and a lack of accountability. Who is responsible for whom? 

What’s more, flat workplaces limit opportunities for employees. And if there’s nowhere to move up to, employees with any modicum of ambition clock this pretty quickly and quit.

The truth is nearly everyone, even if they dislike the idea, benefits from management’s feedback and structure. Tight deadlines improve productivity and enhance creativity. 

History shows us that the most effective movements are the most hierarchical For instance, the Roman Army. Tightly structured and rigidly hierarchical, it was ruthlessly successful. Admittedly, working at London’s premier business newspaper is different to toiling on the battlefield for Marcus Aurelius but the general principle stands. Purpose, discipline, and clearly defined remits are vitally important for an organisation’s success. Put simply, if I wanted to be the master of my own fate, I’d simply go freelance.

Lucy Kenningham is a feature writer at City A.M.

The Verdict: Let’s all steamroll our organisational structures!

Flat workplace structures are, as our ‘no’ contestant suggests, not totally flat. They tend to entail a form management lite in which coded hierarchy exists but there’s less of it. As Boakes suggests, you need the CEO to remain the CEO. This system has its perks: decentralising decisionmaking can leave a firm nimble and responsive, shedding beaurocracy. That’s more useful for some industries than others.

The idea that younger generations hate hierarchies is not fully convincing: some youngsters thrive off having a mentor, as well as discipline. That said, few would want a workplace akin to the Roman Army despite what Kenningham suggests. And nor should they: Roman soldiers were not famous for their creativity. Going to work in 2024 shouldn’t be too similar to the Battle of Heraclea.

And the fact is the evidence supports Boakes.

Britain’s managers famously suck. In a survey released last year, almost one third of UK workers claimed they had left a job due to bad management. Nearly 85 per cent of people said their bosses were ‘accidental’, having had no formal training. Bad management is worse than less management.

Verdict: bring out the steamrollers and flatten those workplaces.

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