A Middle Ground Between Flat Structure and Hierarchy?

The idea that Millennials, the generation now in their twenties and thirties, are happier in workplaces where structures are relatively flat rather than hierarchical is widespread. Offices throughout the U.S. have changed structures to make their organizations reflect less hierarchical values as part of their business strategy.

Millennials are believed to want a flatter management structure than those common in the past.

A Move to Flatter Structures Is Widespread

The Washington Post, for example, observes that open office plans are now the norm, even in sectors like law, which used to make clear physical distinctions between the offices of partners and everyone else. Flat plans, where very few or no employees have a private office, are superseding large private offices as a mark of status. These plans represent a workplace in which gradations of a hierarchy are less significant. Management in these firms is responding to the desire for Millennials for more openness and access.

But is it true that Millennials want a flat structure? Is it always true?

Flat(ter) structures are often associated with digital firms and with start-ups, and especially with places where the two overlap. Silicon Valley, after all, is associated with open offices and with dispensing with other physical markers of hierarchy, such as management in suits.

Millennials’ perception of an optimal business structure may change once a context is accounted for.

A Third Way

A new book by MIT professor Catherine Turco, however, calls into question both the idea that Millennials always desire flat corporate structures and the related idea that digital companies function optimally with flat rather than hierarchical structures.

The book, The Conversational Firm, is an in-depth study of a real firm’s culture, although it is anonymous — dubbed “TechCo” — to readers. It has transitioned from startup to more than 200 employees.

Turco found that, contrary to expectations, Millennials were openly asking for more structure, not less. Upper management had not created a human resources department, for instance, fearing that it would impede nimbleness. The employees, though, were very vocal about feeling HR and its guidance and establishment of rules were needed.

In place of a flat infrastructure, TechCo became a “conversational firm.” Employees were given a voice in business leadership decisions, such as policies. But they were not given the ability to vote on every decision, as they may have had in a more definitively flat firm. (Some of these make the team the leader rather than a specific boss.) Essentially, as Turco phrases it, “decision rights” were separated from “voice rights.”

Voice rights were bestowed, though, through specific structures, ranging from internal communications such as wikis to in-person all-hands meetings.

The experience of TechCo and Turco’s year-long observation of it implies first, that Millennials are not as gung-ho for flat organizations as they are represented. Second, the desire of employees for flat structures depends on the functioning of the organization and their perceptions of it. Third, desires for the values associated with flatness, like transparency and openness, can be achieved through ways other than management structure.

Turco concludes that digital tech firms can improve in many ways by establishing voice rights. They can learn what employees of all generations find necessary and important to their work functioning — including the establishment of more hierarchy.