This article was updated on August 13, 2018.
Technology has disrupted the concept of brick-and-mortar workplaces for distributed, remote teams. According to some, the concept of a workplace hierarchy may also be on its way out the office door. This idea isn't just forward-looking speculation, as The Atlantic reports, "flattening workplace hierarchies has been a management trend for several years."
Hierarchy-less Organizations? Really?
There are a number of examples of businesses whose organizational charts look more like a line than a traditional chart. For example, Morning Star has trashed traditional structures, roles, titles and career paths while achieving double-digit growth, according to Forbes. And although Zappos' shift to a hierarchy-less culture, known as "holocracy," increased their turnover rate, per The Atlantic, it remains to be seen whether the resultant uncertainty is temporary or permanent.
For HR leaders considering a move toward various forms of reduced hierarchy, such as self-organized or parallel teams, it can be very instructive to seek guidance from global perspectives on this concept. The ADP Research Institute® (ADP RI) report, The Evolution of Work: The Changing Nature of the Global Workplace, uncovered that perspectives and opinions can vary significantly by global region.
Here's what you should know.
How Perspectives on Structure Vary Globally
Not only do workers in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region value freedom more than their global peers, they're confident that the future of work is light on hierarchy. According to the report, 80 percent of APAC employees believe that "departments and hierarchy will no longer exist at some point," while 89 percent feel positively about the freedom that would come with self-management. In contrast, nearly one-quarter of Europeans are skeptical that they'll ever have enough freedom to complete most of their work from a mobile device.
Latin Americans' poll results were similar to those of Europeans and North Americans, with 56 percent stating that they believe hierarchical structures will always be a component of the workplace. But overall, the idea of "flatter" organizational structures is a plus. Fifty-six percent of North Americans believe hierarchies could cease to exist, with the majority viewing this trend positively. For some North American workers, a reduction in organizational structures would hopefully lead to improved work-life balance.
Globally, many workers view a future without organizational charts as a possibility. Canadians see it as a way to work less, but Europeans are afraid it could actually increase their stress. Varied perspectives among regions, age groups and types of employees indicate one unifying truth — although employees aren't against self-management or different team structures, many are nervous about the potential personal impact. Therefore, for HR leaders exploring new structures, it would be wise to proceed with caution.
How to Trash Your Organizational Chart
Cultural differences and views aside, both fans and skeptics of "firing the boss" can agree that reducing hierarchy in the workplace can have mixed results. For some organizations, it's a path to more profit and innovation. For others, it can devastate morale and retention. For British tech consultancy Deeson, implementing a collaborative model while retaining directors for oversight improved employees' desire to produce exceptional work, as reported by The Guardian.
With any massive global restructuring effort, sensitivity to differences in employee perspectives is critical. ADP RI identified five overarching needs that employees all over the world relate to in one way or another:
Differences emerge, however, in the weight talent places on each of these basic needs and their fears and hopes for the future. In order to implement any large-scale change, understanding the priorities and pain points of a global workforce is a necessity. By understanding whether your staff fear the impact of technology or look forward to more self-management, HR leaders can shape a communication policy to balance their staff's needs during a time of significant change.
Whether your organization decides to engage in a full-on shift to a "flat" organizational structure or encourage more employee-led collaboration, planning to avoid confusion is critical when evaluating workplace hierarchy. By understanding how region and culture can shape employees' fears and hopes, HR leaders can plan for the future and still maintain productivity and engagement.