The flat organization is a concept in managing and motivating employees that has gotten a lot of interest. Instead of a traditional hierarchy with many layers of management, many companies are looking to create a more egalitarian structure. Flattening the hierarchy can allow employees from all levels of the organization to enjoy a work environment with greater freedom and creativity, and — hopefully — achieve higher levels of productivity.
A recent article in Slate describes what is happening at a few companies that are taking the flat organization concept to the extreme. The idea is called the “self-managed organization,” and it involves no managers. That’s right — no bosses. Employees in a self-managed organization all work as independent contractors, project managers and collaborators. Instead of reporting to managers, self-managed employees report to each other.
One example of a self-managed company is Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor with 400 full-time employees and $700 million in annual revenue. Employees there are all equals — there are no job titles and no higher ups. Instead, all employees work according to contractual agreements called Colleague Letters of Understanding (CLOUs) that outline the expectations and responsibilities for each worker.
A self-managed company structure is radically different from how most companies do things, but it comes with some unique benefits:
Self-managed companies can improve productivity because they enable faster innovation. Instead of asking their boss and their boss’s boss for permission to try something new or solve a problem in a new way, in a self-managed organization workers can simply consult a peer and get to work.
More Employee Autonomy
At self-managed companies like Morning Star, employees have a significant amount of freedom to decide how they work – and which projects to prioritize. Instead of taking orders from a higher-ranking boss, employees must gain consensus among their work teams.
For example, instead of having pay raises approved by bosses, employee compensation is handled by a review panel of coworkers. This fosters empowerment and initiative, as instead of waiting for a boss to give them direction, workers constantly evaluate their options and collaborate with the larger team to decide on which projects are most important.
Because employees at self-managed organizations create their own sense of leadership and teamwork, there is often more flexibility and adaptability within the company. Instead of having designated departments for each business function, employees can be quickly reassigned to new projects that arise. Ideally, the self-managed organization might make it easier for companies to respond quickly to opportunities or deploy employees for new roles, regardless of the traditional idea of job titles or hierarchies.