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COVID-19 Reveals Why Flat Organizations Thrive: Steal Their Secrets

COVID-19 Reveals Why Flat Organizations Thrive: Steal Their Secrets

By Lorena Martinez and Ed Frauenheim

COVID-19 has taught us all about “flattening the curve.” But the pandemic has also taught organizations to flatten their cultures.

And the flattest companies can offer lessons to other organizations to help them emerge from the COVID era with healthier cultures.

How the pandemic flattened work culture

Even before COVID, many organizations were adopting more egalitarian and less hierarchical cultures. These companies recognized that top-down management and systems that treat some employees as “superior” to others lack agility and limit the potential contributions of “lower ranking” employees.

But the pandemic seems to have accelerated the move to a “flatter” organizational structure.

Why? Because this past year, we have seen our shared humanity – Zoom and Webex calls are great levelers.

Instead of being called into the corner office of a boss, with all its trappings of power, we see our leaders in their “home office”—the dining table, a corner of the living room or perhaps a spare bedroom—often with a cat or a kid running around in the background. And those same leaders have realized that they can trust and rely on employees to produce positive results, even remotely.

Organizations that were embracing flatness pre-pandemic were perhaps best prepared for this shift to the new, virtual, decentralized way of working.

Consider what this employee of software company Red Hat – a particularly egalitarian organization – told us in a recent survey:

The culture is the most unique I have ever worked at. The organization is very “flat” and hierarchy is less relevant. I can and have approached senior executives in the hallway as easily as a peer. I have shared “drop in” cubicles with executives, when space is needed. And even now while under quarantine, the executive team holds video conference meetings from home and maintains the same casual, honest, down-to-earth reputation. The culture helps make the environment great for people. Which makes the people you work with even better. 

Top-down is dangerous and damaging in a crisis

Despite this experience with flattening in 2020, we have also seen organization leaders make unilateral decisions.

Rather than equalize and humanize relationships at work, they have exacerbated divisions in authority and treated employees more as peons than partners in a shared mission.

These executives may be retreating into comfortable command-and-control postures. But the authoritarian impulse is counter-productive.

Most Great Place to Work-Certified™ companies have seen their employee experience scores improve this past year—as leaders and employees across these high-trust organizations have come together to navigate multiple crises.

But when leaders at the top dictated changes about schedules, benefits and work activities without listening to employees’ ideas and perspectives first, scores on our Trust Index™ employee survey tended to fall.

That spells trouble. Our decades of research show that high levels of trust among employees translates into stronger business results and resilience during difficult times.  

Flat organizations lead to happy employees, even in crisis

Prior to the pandemic, we identified nearly two dozen organizations that had flat cultures – that is, they consciously sought to minimize hierarchical relationships and power disparities. We’ve noted that these more horizontal companies tend to have a very high percentage of inclusive, effective leaders—what we at Great Place to Work call For All™ leaders.

To see how these companies were operating amid COVID, we studied employee comments made during recent surveys and compared them to pre-pandemic employee comments. What we discovered was more of the same.

That is, employees at these organizations have been experiencing their leaders over the past year in the same egalitarian ways as they did before 2020.

Employees at these less-hierarchical companies described interactions with leadership, pre- and post-pandemic in five common ways:

5 Common themes in employee feedback on flat leadership during the pandemic

  1. Everyone is treated as an equal member – there are no privileged “classes”

  2. Leaders are approachable – managers and executives make time for employees and proactively engage with people across the organization, regardless of their level, tenure, or department

  3. Leaders ask for genuine feedback frequently – feedback isn’t a one-way street from the top down

  4. Employees experience openness and safety – they feel comfortable expressing opinions that are different from those of leaders

  5. Employees feel deeply valued by leaders – they sense leaders value them as much as they value profits or clients

Flat helps refresh rather than burn out employees

This comment from an employee of professional services firm Plante Moran summarizes the benefits of flat organizations:

“This is the least hierarchical company I have ever worked for. Special treatment is rare, and leadership is approachable. In previous firms I’ve worked at, partners are viewed as “celebrities” and firm service staff members were viewed as overhead. Here, we are viewed as people with significant contributions to make. To say that Plante Moran’s culture is refreshing would be an understatement. It is genuinely a standout company within the professional services industry.”

One of the most striking things about this employee comment is what it doesn’t include. There is no mention of COVID, even though it was taken from a survey in late 2020.

That suggests this employee is managing the challenges of the pandemic relatively well. Even as millions of employees across the globe are experiencing burn-out, this employee feels “refreshed” by Plante Moran’s flat culture.

So, if you want a team of energized employees to help you emerge with a healthy business in the wake of COVID, consider the lessons of Plante Moran and other egalitarian organizations. To elevate your people and your business outcomes, consider flattening your culture.

Get a wellness pulse on your remote workforce

We designed a 10-question wellness pulse survey – based on 30 years of studying employee experience – to measure and track employee burnout in your remote workforce. Ask us how you can get it today.


Lorena Martinez