Why the Asia-Pacific Region Wants Flatter Organizations

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Relative to the rest of the world, the Asia-Pacific region is defined by three factors that are driving its workplace trends: continued economic growth, rapid technological development and younger-skewing workers. Those trends make the region both energized about workplace changes and well-prepared to manage them.

ADP Research Institute® study The Evolution of Work: The Changing Nature of the Global Workforce identified five "basic human needs" impacting global workplaces: freedom, knowledge, stability, self-management and meaning. One of the study's biggest surprises came in the area of self-management: 80 percent of respondents from the region "believe departments and hierarchy will, at some point, no longer exist," compared to 54 percent of respondents from other parts of the world. While the younger-skewing nature of the Asia-Pacific workforce may support some of the belief in the "flattening" of organizational structures, and the region's rapid adoption of technology may also support anti-hierarchy opinions, the region's traditional culture of respect for authority/hierarchy offers a dilemma in understanding the data.

What Is Self-Management?

The ADP study sees self-management as the increased autonomy of workers enabled by technology. As tech trends such as cloud computing, automation, digital transformation and human capital management solutions proliferate (and they've been readily adopted in Asia-Pacific), technology "will remove barriers to collaboration and help redefine the relationship between workers and their managers" and "people's productivity will be enhanced by effectively partnering with these smart machines. With technology in place to help govern and maintain individuals and teams, a workplace where departments and hierarchy cease to exist may not be a far-fetched idea." So instead of managing or coordinating the work of others, people will be able to focus directly on working with technology to grow their businesses.

While 70 percent of Asia-Pacific respondents felt positively about a future workplace of no departments and hierarchies, a flatter workplace would certainly displace many managers, forcing them to change roles and perhaps diminishing their prestige. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many managers express anxiety about a "hierarchy-free" future where workers largely control the what, where, how and when of their work.

Challenging Traditions: Asia-Pacific Attitudes Are Changing

Both its younger-skewing workforce and their highly tech-savvy orientation seem to support the overwhelming impulse in Asia-Pacific for less hierarchical workplaces. The ADP study notes that the region is a tech leader with a strong infrastructure already in place to support greater worker autonomy: "The technology needed to enable workers to have more independence, better manage their productivity and performance, and receive feedback and recognition in real-time (through productivity sensors, automated smart machines, etc.) is believed to either already exist or to be imminent within the next three to five years," says The Evolution of Work.

Yet the cultural barriers to a flatter workplace remain in Asia-Pacific workplaces, which traditionally value harmony and allegiance to hierarchy, according to Frontiers in Psychology. But that deferential culture may be on its way to changing, not only related to demographics and technology, but to greater transparency (much of it enabled by technology) about malfeasance in high places, such as the Chinese government's ruling communist party.

"Those in China are very excited about a shift to less hierarchy," explains The Evolution of Work. "For some, a decreasing faith in the hierarchical Communist Party amongst the wealthy and a rapidly growing middle class is likely driving this excitement. Many of these individuals do not believe in the state ideology, yet still comply with it."

CNN reports that there were 2,726 worker strikes or protests in China in 2015, and that pace has quickened in 2016, showing a clear willingness by workers to challenge the hierarchical status quo. There is also a developing Silicon Valley-type start-up culture around Beijing, where young Chinese entrepreneurs seek to disrupt traditional industries and work in new ways that stress collaboration and a reduced emphasis on hierarchies, according to Forbes.

As The Evolution of Work study makes clear, the world of work is changing quickly in the global workplace, led by trends in technology and demographics that are leading employers toward more flexibility. Those trends, especially in attitudes about flatter workplace structures, are moving relatively faster in the Asia-Pacific region, where workers skew younger and technological adoption is moving forward quickly.

For more information on the future of the flexible workplace, download the report: Evolution of Work: The Changing Nature of the Global Workplace.