Get to know the advantages and disadvantages of a flat-structure set-up

In the fast-evolving landscape of modern workplaces, traditional hierarchical structures are being challenged like never before. The allure of rigid chains of command is waning, making room for more inclusive, collaborative, and innovative environments. Welcome to the world of flat organisational structures, where autonomy reigns, creativity flourishes, and employees have a real voice.

In this article, we delve into the captivating realm of flat organisational structures, exploring their definition, advantages, and potential drawbacks, along with an example of an organisation with a flat structure, and how you can adapt your CV to showcase your potential for a role in a company of this nature. 

What is a flat organisational structure?

A flat organisational structure is an organisational model with few levels of middle management between staff and leadership. Sometimes, there are none at all. There's effectively no hierarchy to the organisational structure of the business, hence the term “flat.”

Startups and small businesses are most likely to have a flat structure, because of their petite size. Hierarchy would likely be redundant or a hindrance. 

As you would expect with small businesses with a flat structure, there are few steps between an entry-level employee and the Managing Director. Often staff report directly to the business owner, with no formal management structure, although there can be a middle management layer of one or two people who oversee broad groups of employees.

Advantages of a flat organisational structure

There are plenty of advantages to a flat organisational structure. These are just a few:

Increased responsibility

A flat organisational structure carries plenty of benefits for individuals that are looking for a role with plenty of accountability and autonomy. If you're brave and a go-getter, set your sights on a company with a flat structure.

Since there are few people in management, micromanagement is typically non-existent and staff are trusted, encouraged, and appreciated for being involved in business decisions of all shapes and sizes.

Strong talent recognition

Small businesses with a flat structure are often very fast-paced - some may even call it a “sink or swim environment,” depending on your skill set and personality type. This bodes well for bold characters who are passionate about their vocation and want to make a difference.

A flat structure allows employees to hone in on their talents by rewarding them with more responsibilities in line with their strengths. This recognition of talent can often fast-track a career path, especially as there's a very small gap between employees and leadership.

Employee motivation, satisfaction, and productivity

Feeling trusted to have the authority to share and implement ideas and do things in your own way creates a wholesome, positive workplace culture. The welcome side effects of this psychological safety include feeling more motivated to make a role your own and to make a difference in the company. This drives productivity and improves overall employee satisfaction.

Simpler information exchange

As employees are trusted to make decisions with little-to-no supervision in a flat organisational structure, the transmission of any information is easier and faster. You don't have to wait for suggestions to reach the top board for sign-off, or for procedures to filter down as you would in a hierarchical structure. It's much simpler, as all employees are encouraged to pass on information in a straightforward way.

Reduced operating costs

Hiring middle managers and C-suite executives is expensive, especially for startups and small businesses. Since decision-making occurs at an employee level in a flat organisational structure, it eliminates the need for a squad of leaders. A leaner operation means that small businesses can put trust in their staff to make calls with minimal supervision. Plus, it enables the business to reinvest expenses into areas that will drive growth, such as marketing, developing new product lines, or employee bonuses. 

Disadvantages of a flat organisational structure

Of course, with pros, there are always cons. These are a few disadvantages of a flat organisational structure:

Unclear reporting lines and power struggles

When everyone can make their own decisions, but is also reporting to a Managing Director or a middle manager or two, it can lead to confusion about the chain of command. This is especially the case when the C-suite is not present, and may even result in a power vacuum. Tensions may rise among employees as they battle to become the decision maker, which can lead to resentment and a lack of productivity.

Lack of specialism or job function

Often, employees in a small business with a flat organisational structure have to do a little bit of everything , even if a person was hired to do a specific thing. A flat structure can create an uncertain environment around roles and responsibilities, and staff can quickly generalise in an undefined role, rather than thriving in a specialism with a clear path.

Difficulties progressing or growing

A flat organisational structure isn't a scalable model. If a small company experiences fast growth over a short period of time, leadership can lose control over the business, which can lead to poor decision-making and negative workplace experiences. 

In the same vein, while steep progression opportunities might present themselves more easily for staff, such as a jump from manager to head of a department, this comes with a steep learning curve. And since most people report to the Managing Director, there is little support for those new to leadership - which could be harmful even if the employee is ready for the challenge. 

Poor work-life balance

As businesses with flat organisational structures give staff autonomy and will likely ask them to do a little of everything, this can lead to an unhealthy work-life balance. Many people often feel they are connected to their work, because they feel a deep responsibility to keep things ticking in such a fast-paced, high-stakes environment.

What is an example of a flat organisational structure?

The game development company Valve is widely recognised for its flat organisational structure. There are no traditional managerial positions, formal hierarchy, or job titles. 

Employees have a high degree of autonomy and are encouraged to take on projects that interest them. They have the ability to work on multiple projects simultaneously and there is a strong emphasis on open communication and the exchange of ideas.

There is a mutual trust at Valve where the employer trusts employees to work on projects that they believe will contribute to the company's goals, and the employee will have the freedom to work hard on the projects they want to deliver.

How to tailor your CV to a business with a flat organisational structure

When applying for a job in a small business or startup with a flat organisational structure, you can tailor your CV to highlight specific qualities and experiences that align with the company's values and needs. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • Highlight any experiences or projects that demonstrate your ability to take initiative, be proactive, and work independently

  • Showcase your versatility, as flat-structured organisations often require employees to wear multiple hats and be adaptable

  • While flat organisations promote autonomy, they also value collaboration and teamwork, so highlight these skills

  • Emphasise your innovative problem-solving abilities, as startups and small businesses with flat structures often face unique challenges

  • Demonstrate that you're comfortable working in a fast-paced and rapidly changing work environment
  • Express genuine enthusiasm for the industry or the specific mission of the company

The organisational structure of a company is an important consideration when choosing your next job. A job in a flat-structured organisation is very different to a job in a hierarchical structure, even if the job title is the same. If you want to make sure that your CV and cover letter showcase the right traits for a flat company, check out our free CV review.

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