How Flat Work Environments Kill Successful Companies.

Author Matt Van Hoven is a regular contributor to THE FIVE=STIR and best known for his dry wit and giving the advertising industry a swift kick in the tail, for two years straight.

Progressive, upstart companies are, in large numbers, embracing the flat work environment. It's a maneuver that allows the top man or woman to do more, by empowering the lower ranking staffers to get things done. It's a great system that promotes flexibility and speed. But it can be devastating for employee morale and sense of accomplishment. Here, we'll identify some pitfalls and tricks to overcome them. 

Flat structures make the ladder system look feeble and pointless. They promote collaboration, creativity, and momentum by leveling the playing field. Anyone can become a stakeholder, and at the same time, everyone can contribute to the final outcome. Rah rah hoo rah. Go team. Let's celebrate the victory. 

Where this is most common today is the start-up world, where people come together with goals aligned to build something that the world hopefully just can't live without. It's increasingly common in the advertising world, which tends to practice the belief that a good idea can come from anywhere. 

But these worlds differ greatly in one fundamental structural way - an agency gets its money from a corporate entity, which expects the agency to act in a certain way, while at the same time being flat and cool and creative. Start-ups, while sometimes beholden to this, tend to be less beholden to the client in favor of developing the best product possible. Agencies get confused about this dichotomy, often to a fault. Sometimes, looking corporate is very good for business. Bottom line, flat structures create confusion about where power lies, because eventually someone has to be in charge - whether because a client demands it or a job won't get done unless someone takes charge. 

So this topic may be less relevant to the start-up crowd than it is to the agency set, but the same general principles apply - it's a matter of individual growth versus company growth, and flat structures aren't very good at ratcheting up the individual's needs. It assumes that, because everyone gets to participate, everyone must be happy. Usually it's just the opposite - everyone is working so frantically that no one has time to think about what they want to be doing. 

In a ladder system, this problem is solved by moving up the ladder. The tasks you perform as a junior executive become something you oversee as an associate, and so on. In a flat system, it's a little like feeding chickens. The farmer comes by, flings a handful of feed (tasks), and everyone rushes to get them done, regardless of who is best to accomplish them. 

This is great for the company, because it means the job gets done quickly. It's bad for the employee who actually wanted to do that task, but got pushed aside by someone else. It's chick eat chick out there, after all. 

The problem is, people aren't chickens. People are individuals with unique skills, needs, and goals. Giving one person an assignment means another person doesn't get to do it. Sure, they might weigh in and contribute ideas, but if time doesn't allow that collaboration, someone ends up owning the task outright, leaving the others to go about their own work, silently ticked over having missed the opportunity.

Resentment and outright disdain eventually follow. 

On the other hand, where the ladder becomes inefficient is the constant turnover in roles, and the need to regularly teach new people how to do things someone else already knows how to do. Turnover plagues ladder systems, but it does more to address human tendencies - we get bored and complacent and we need to do new things in order to stay engaged, so we move up the ladder. 

As I've demonstrated, that's not really possible in the flat system. Unless the leader (there's got to be one) really makes an effort to define new roles (versus tasks) for people who are ready for more responsibility, the company is going to stagnate. First, that responsible individual will become disenfranchised, and eventually the entire team can get caught in a sort of stagnant zone. The result is flat structure tends to prevent new leaders from emerging. 

The issue is further exacerbated when power struggles arise in the group, say over which idea is best or how to bring something to life. Another problem area is when individuals make strides to define their roles by asserting that they own a set of tasks. One person might try to own something that falls into another person's wheel house. Depending on the pair's relationship, this can be very detrimental to the relationship and the office environment overall, and leads to poor communication and disengagement.

To combat this, a flat environment requires additional attention to each individual from a leader. It is best if this guidance comes from the grand poo bah, but it can also come from someone whose role falls outside the rest of the group - an individual who acts either in a support role or whose skills are needed during a different part of the process. Whatever the case, the onus is on this person to work with each team member on personal-professional development, at regular intervals. 

When individual needs are being met, employees can focus on the business of working. It's really as simple as that, and is even simpler to do - all it takes is solid communication between the leader and the individual. This requires confidence on the part of the leader, that his role isn't going to be diminished by letting someone else take the reins now and then, as well as time to think about each person's needs and how to communicate with the individual. 

In that sense, it's not easy at all, but the risk of not doing so is far too great. The first step is to talk to your team, one on one, and find out what's really going on. If you're reading this and you're in a similar situation, now is the time to start mending it. Odds are you're in an open room - so turn to your left or your right, and see if a nearby staffer wants to get lunch. In a small way, your company's success depends on it. 

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