Working in FLAT Organizations: An Idiot’s Guide

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Flat Organizations have been the “In” thing to happen in many new economy companies for over a decade now. Today most companies “new economy” or the “old economy” like to describe their organization has flat. Initially it did start with a lot of the Silicon Valley ventures, then the IT boom, then the Internet bubble and the idea was well entrenched in to the HR toolkits of most organizations across the globe. Cross pollination of ideas which usually happens when HR head honchos switch jobs eventually ensured that “Flat” is the only way any organization is supposed to be structured. While this article is not useful to anybody looking information on “Flat” as an organization concept, it is a must read for the millions of minions like me who eke a living out of “corporatedom”.

It is not clear where and how this particular word originated but it is expected to be a very fashionable word to use particularly if you are the HR person of the company. My guess is that “Flat” originated as a word which would imply the opposite of the “pyramidal”, a structure of organization most companies were used to ever since the industrial revolution. “Flat” could also have originated has a word which alluded to “Level” since most organizations defined their positions and seniority ladders as levels. Thus “Flat” was supposed to the idea to level out all levels. “Flat” could also be a shorter version of “Flatter” as this is a word which “Flatters” the lowliest minions in the company to think that they are equal to the bosses.

“Flat” could mean different things for different people in the organization, like everything else in the world the meaning of flat depends on the individual’s outlook towards life, like

For an Optimist – Flat could mean she is now closer to the top.

For a Pessimist – Flat could mean there is not enough elbow room to go up.

For the Cynic — Flat could mean there is not enough to go round.

For the Utopian – Flat means all people in the company are equal.

For the Ambitious – Flat could mean there is no ladder to climb.

For the Lazy – Flat could mean there is no need to try to go anywhere as there is nothing up there.

For the Authoritarian – Flat could mean “Other than me” all are at the same level.

For the Team Player – Flat could mean there are more options to pass the buck (or baton -PC).

In addition to an individuals outlook, how “Flat” impacts your own career depends on which stage of career you are in and what your position in the organization is, like-

If you are Trainee or junior staffer – Flat means you need to take on responsibilities which are directly disproportional to your age and position, since we treat you as an equal!!

If you are a Mid-Level manager – Flat means there is no more room for you to go up. They have replaced the corporate ladder which you were climbing with a stool and you are already standing on top of it. The people above you are actually above the ceiling.

If you are a Senior Manager – Flat means your responsibilities will be now given to smarter and younger staffers probably even trainees who do the same work at much lower pay, so that you become redundant before you retire.

If you are the Top Boss – Flat means other than yourself every thing is Flat and all people are at the same level.

It is difficult to trace the exact reasons for the onslaught of the “Flat” revolution in “Corporatedom”. Although conceptually it has its political equivalent in the Communist revolution, the essential difference to be noted is that the political revolution emphasized in change of ownership of political power from the Czars to the common people and was a revolution caused by the common people. The corporate revolution on the other hand is driven usually from the top or the board. The “common man” in the corporatedom – the staffers and junior managers usually have no interest in the Flat Revolution. In corporatedom – “Flat” does not emphasize change of ownership or even distribution of ownership, it emphasizes only on distribution of work and responsibilities lower down the order.

Along with the distribution of work and responsibilities lower down the order usually accompanied by technology enabled management control systems, it also draws blood much like the other revolutions, by reducing the number of positions and ranks in the organization. Then – what happens to the people who are already occupying those positions and ranks, depending on how lady luck smiles on them and how they have been adaptable to the culture of the organization they could be –

Laid Off – This usually accompanied by a strenuous and excruciating process of “fitment” where HR tries to collect enough documentation to ensure you do not retaliate.

Downsized – Usually means your position and pay is no longer available, you could accept something lesser than you deserve.

Right Sized – usually accompanied by a process of discovery where HR finds they made critical mistakes earlier in offering you better pay and perks and the time for righting that wrong has arrived

Lateral Movement – This is a humiliating process by which the organization asks you to do a job you cannot do and then points out how incapable you are of doing a job.

Kicked Upstairs – This happens to the lucky few who have collected enough brownie points in the past or hold some mission critical secrets which may be either useful or damaging depending on the nature of the person. It is also done if you are good candidate for employment by competition. In this case you are given a senior than current position with more advisory activities, little responsibilities and no action.

What has been discussed above is relevant to people who are caught in the throes of the “Flat Revolution” in corporatedom. What if you have landed yourself a new job in Utopia Inc. where everything is Flat? This can be particularly tricky with a lot of the foolish minions actually taking thinks to their head and assuming that they are as equal as the people above them. Organizing your daily life around a Flat organization can be as tricky as playing Minesweeper on Windows – on wrong click and all the points you collected till date becomes zero -game over- start again.

I will conclude with a few tips for people who join fresh in Utopia Inc. a Flat Organization which may help in survival till you find the next job.

Golden Rules for working in Flat Organizations:

* Remember George Orwell – ” All are equal, but some are more equal”

*Remember it has been proven since the age of renaissance – that the world is round and not flat.

*Remember not to be “Flattered” by Flat.

Typical Symptoms for Flat Organizations:

* Common lunch rooms and cafeterias for all staff which means there is no place to gossip and bitch about your boss.

* Open office spaces and no secretarial assistance to senior managers which means your boss keeps a constant eye on you and you have may have to even do some work supposed to be done by his/her secretary.

* Misleading and confusing designations which is well devised ploy by HR to flatter lower rung employees to think they have the similar sounding designations as bosses and confuse senior employees so that they do not find out that their career is stagnant. Remember that a “Boss by any designation is still a boss”.

* Constant change in roles and responsibilities which is again a well devised ploy to ensure you never become good at what you do.

* Overwhelming use of technology and systems which ensures that has the computing power of chips increases, most of your knowledge is mapped onto corporate databases and the organizations can be made much more flat.

* Penchant for outsourcing work, which becomes essential since the more you outsource the more you can keep on reducing levels in the organization to become even more flat.

So once you have understood the symptoms and use the golden rules as mantras, you need to ensure that you go on daily diet to ensure your fitness to live in flat world. The essential ingredients of your daily diet should be –

Document your good work – This will ensure that when there is an exercise of fitment you can hold forth against HR

Take Credit immediately – Modesty is not a virtue. Take credit for any success which was remotely associated with you.

Be focused on Self-Development – Your aim should be to build your CV as per market needs and work is a means of building the CV.

Be Multi-Skilled – you never know which one will be useful on a particular day. It would be a good idea if you have a few lateral skills like being able to organize parties, bartending, dancing, anchoring stage shows etc in case nothing else works they will help. I know of people who have built a decent corporate career with only these skills.

Be focused on the Pay Check – At the end of the day you are as good as the paycheck in your hand.

Measure your worth – through the seriousness of deliverables asked of you, number of security rights, approval authority and number of people reporting to you and not by your designation or what is communicated to you by HR.

While the tone of this article may appear grim, it has been written out methodical research, observation of organizations and serious contemplation. The intent is not discussing an HR theory but provide the ordinary person with a self help guide.

May your rise to rule “Corporatedom”!

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