How do we work out what structure is best for our workplace?

So what kind of workplaces are best for the economy? Depends what we’re aiming for, and what suits us as individuals. Some workplaces are aiming to make a profit, others to provide a service or bring about social change. Hierarchical and horizontal organisations have different values and assumptions about efficient organisation, human motivation, and the importance of a sense of ownership.

There’s no clear link between sector and workplace structure - it varies. Certain NGOs and charity organisations operate in very hierarchical structures, while more and more businesses are adopting horizontal, consumer-led or worker-led business models. Often if an organisation has paid employees as well as volunteers, there’s a mix of hierarchy and non-hierarchy where volunteers are compensated for their time by being allocated a project or area to lead on, but the ultimate responsibility to deliver lies with paid employees.

Hierarchical organisations assume that people with more experience know better, higher salaries motivate people to work harder, and a system where everyone knows precisely what they’re doing is the most efficient way to organise. Decisions are quick and leaders are accountable for their decisions’ consequences. The downside is that those at the top don’t always understand how the organisation works as well as those at the bottom, and adding loads of layers of communication can slow the organisation down.

Non-hierarchical structures assume that a sense of ownership is important to keep people motivated at work. Not constraining people with roles and statuses can give them the freedom to take on a challenge that a hierarchy wouldn’t allow. A shared sense of pride in and responsibility for an organisation can inspire members to make it the best it can be, as opposed to an organisation where their contribution does not feel valued by nature of their ranking. The downside is that a lack of strategic oversight can lead to missed opportunities, and the horizontal nature of the organisation could mean that those with a stronger skill set in management aren’t able to apply their skills.