Over the past decade or so, companies have been moving away from a hierarchical structure toward a flatter organization (picture that org chart losing a few rows). In the process, many companies did away with offices, instead favoring communal open work spaces (and yes, ping-pong tables).
While you probably won't hear an interviewee say they love the "open concept" as much as potential homebuyers on House Hunters, many offices have adopted new organizational styles that lose the bureaucratic red tape while gaining transparency, improving communication, and empowering employees.
Whether a flatter structure can make your company more efficient and successful depends on the culture—if it enables or impedes employees' ability to handle the freedom and uncertainty that can come with less hierarchy. Frankly, flat structures can seem a bit chaotic. Some form of order is necessary to guide employees in playing by the new rules.
Enter the idea of “organized chaos"—something travel company Booking.com does well. We spoke with Xaveer Fluitman and Charles Bowman from the company's Booking.com for Business team to get their take on how and why this works.
Do Fewer Rules Make You Better at Your Job?
Xaveer and Charles both agree that at Booking.com there's a lot going on at once. Plus change happens all the time—to everyone. Most teams are flat and operate on the idea that the employees are on the same level as their leader.
Yet what could become a chaotic atmosphere is held together by an underlying order—and organized chaos. Essentially, employees are given freedom to find their way to success, whether that means building their own project team or making a quick decision without running it by a designated leader. But no matter how much they experiment, they must keep the end goal in mind and stay accountable by backing up their decisions with real data. This loose structure has fostered an environment in which employees thrive. Here's how:
1. It Empowers Employees
Employees have more freedom and autonomy, so they drive their own organizational impact, says Charles. He points out that chaos doesn't mean “out of control." In fact, he argues that employees have more accountability.
“Our culture is built around peer-to-peer accountability," he explains, “so it motivates you to be organized and work cross-functionally. We employees own the culture. It's not forced down by the company, which makes us all more accountable to one another."
2. It Fosters Critical Thinking
When companies employ a formal leadership structure with sole ownership of strategy, and then compel lower level employees to implement the top-down vision, those employees simply do as they're told. They aren't free to question anything or consider how they could improve upon management's plan.
But when employees don't always have someone leading the way, telling them exactly what to do and how to do it, they must think for themselves.
“When you don't know the next step," Charles says , “you have to think critically and always be on your feet."
3. It Focuses Employees
We know, this one may sound a little off. How can chaos help people focus? This is where the “organized" side of “organized chaos" comes in. Xaveer notes that team members set aspirational Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) at the outset of each project. He notes that OKRs should include clear measuring points along the way.
“We always have our end goal in mind, but we also have the freedom to get there in our own way," Xaveer explains. “So we set those expectations, support and coach one another, give and receive regular feedback, and check data. But we never micromanage." While there's a lot going on at once, the goal is the guiding force.
4. It Fuels Engagement
When companies allow employees to take part in the decision-making process, they harness everyone's brainpower and skill. That's an exciting environment to be in.
“At top-down companies, decision-making is centralized," says Charles. “Here, though, everyone is welcome to question decisions to better understand and even reframe them if it makes sense."
Xaveer notes that because they allow every employee to ask questions and explore the answers, there are “thousands of experiments running at the same time, so there's not much burn out. We're always trying to find new ways to do things better."
5. It Provides Learning Opportunities
When a company's culture allows, even encourages, employees to leave their comfort zones, no one will suffer from a stagnant career.
“We embrace continuous refinement, and that's not possible if you never try anything new," affirms Xaveer. “We're not afraid of failure, which allows us to take risks and pivot quickly." He notes that even new hires can challenge decisions thanks to Booking.com's flat culture, and that by using collective brain power and diverse perspectives, the company produces better outcomes.
Charles, himself, has learned to thrive on change. He says, “I constantly get to learn new things. What was once uncomfortable and new becomes an extremely interesting learning process."
6. It Stimulates Adaptability
When employees continually learn and try new things, they can become more adaptable.
Xaveer points out that at Booking.com no one is on the same project for more than a year at most. He admits, “In any other industry and in many companies, your focus is pretty set. But here, change isn't frightening."
Charles has worked in many different environments in his short nine months with the company and often gets the opportunity to work with other teams.
“You get comfortable with—even grow to love it," he says.
7. It Sparks Collaboration
In a flat culture, like Booking.com's, even the CEO is available to talk with any employee, Xaveer says. He notes that even across country lines, employees at this global company work cross-functionally.
“Across the entire business we're super collaborative," says Xaveer. This is especially important for companies that need to move with agility to outperform their competition. Organizations that use every ounce of knowledge and skill from each employee achieve cohesive and synergistic teams. Without strong collaboration among team members, projects cannot move forward nimbly, and opportunities will be lost.
No Rules? Really?
We asked them: Does your flat culture mean you essentially have no rules?
Respect is a rule, says Xaveer, but other rules are a minimum. Charles explains that at Booking.com, employees set the rules.
“You learn by doing," he says. "And that happens when you're immersed with your colleagues. Constructive rules naturally come out of that." This atmosphere builds a sense of trust for each team. No one is micromanaged, so everyone feels accountable and they all show up with good intentions. This is the culture Booking.com has achieved—without a defined hierarchy.