How to create employee engagement in a flat or hierarchical structure

If you’ve ever worked in an organisation with very few management layers and also experienced organisations with multiple ranks of hierarchy, you know how different they feel as an employee. Engaging employees in either environment challenges us to maximise the best of what our organisation offers and mitigate the worst. But how best to do that, and how does our approach differ depending on the organisational structure we operate within?

Any organisational structure only exists so that the work necessary to deliver on the business strategy can be performed. While they may appear like simple boxes and lines on a chart, a structure shows us who does what, how decisions are made and how communication flows. As business strategies evolve, so too do organisational structures – introducing layers of hierarchy where necessary, or choosing to remain flat where it makes sense. When any review of an organisational structure takes place, we should also ask ourselves, how are we creating engagement or otherwise in this structure? A good starting point in answering this question is to consider the inherent strengths in the way your organisation is structured. Your engagement approach should maximise these.


The best of a hierarchical structure (and the worst of a flat one)

A hierarchical structure works well when leaders are essential to make decisions or draw issues to closure. This means every individual can see who their work flows to and who the decision maker with authority is. From an engagement perspective this creates two obvious advantages;



1. Clear career progression opportunities

Being able to see the advancement possibilities ahead of you means that employees can visualise their pathways for career progression and have more confidence in their future career moves.



2. Providing more frequent development opportunities

With multiple layers, there are more levels between the most senior and junior roles. This allows individuals to take incremental steps in development, without needing to make massive career jumps to close the gap. Taking on these development opportunities more frequently feels like regular career progression, which is a key driver of engagement. According to the findings of the 2014 Aon Hewitt Best Employers survey, 73% of employees in accredited best employers believe their organisation ‘offers excellent career opportunities to employees who are strong performers’ (as compared to 45% in other organisations).



Creating employee engagement in a flat structure

With a flat organisational structure, the points above are difficult realities to create. Your very ‘flatness’ limits vertical career progression, making it harder for people to visualise how they might progress their careers. Rather than maximising these characteristics, your engagement strategy involves minimising their impact. Your approach should therefore consider:



  1. How do we create career pathways for people to advance their careers, without relying on a traditional vertical hierarchy? How can we create a sense of progression for employees, even if their position on the organisation chart doesn’t move? Organisations doing this well encourage employees to think of their career as a series of experiences, rather than a climb through the proverbial corporate ladder.

  2. How do we create incremental development opportunities (cross-functionally or vertically) so our employees continually develop their skills and careers? How might we encourage advancement in a non-traditional way? An example is to create projects, which are practical opportunities for people to develop skills and often increase an individual’s exposure to other parts of the business outside of their core role. Some organisations do this by rotating high-potential individuals throughout the business, so that they gain cross-domain experience and organisational-wide perspective. This not only increases retention, but can often break down silos that may exist between departments.




The worst of a hierarchical structure (and the best of a flat one)

While they have clear advantages, hierarchical organisations tend to also have a bad reputation for control and detachment. From an engagement perspective, this creates two clear disadvantages:



1. Employees can feel dis-empowered

As managers tend to screen decisions, they eliminate risks and reduce the chances of failure. This can lead to a lack of experimentation and a lack of control over one’s own destiny.



2. Employees can feel disconnected from their leaders

With multiple layers in between, unwanted distance between the most senior and most junior members of an organisation is often a reality. This can create an ‘us and them’ mentality, or a lack of emotional connection between the two.



Creating employee engagement in a hierarchical structure

Any approach to engagement should therefore consider how to best avoid these realities, which means we should think about:



  1. How can we create empowerment for employees within their boundaries? How can we give them a sense of control over their own work, decisions and impact on the organisation? How can we encourage experimentation and a sense of ownership over work, despite management involvement?

  2. How do our leaders stay connected with all layers of employees? How do communication forums and channels help or hinder this? How do our leaders behave in a way that makes relationships feel flat, even if the structure is not?


If you're in a flat organisation, you enjoy the opposite end of this spectrum – empowered employees and a closer community of staff – making these strong engagement levers for you to maximise.

By maximising your best and minimising your worst, you can make the most of the environment you operate within, which should lead to greater productivity and engagement, in any structure.

While SEEK partners with trusted contributors to bring you the latest insight and advice, the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.