Ratios and norms

The question of 'layers and spans' came up again during the week when someone asked me what the standard number of layers were for an organization and what the ideal span of control is for a manager. This question was followed by someone asking me to comment on the standard ratio of desk/office space to employee. The requests seem related to me: that there is some magic number that can be taken as a kind of universal maxim that runs on the lines of: offices allocating x amount of space to y number of employees reporting to a manager who has the stated span of control and an orthodox position in the hierarchy will lead to an effectively performing organization. I can't believe for one moment that this could be true – it smacks of flat earth thinking to me. But since Thomas Friedman enhanced his already significant reputation as a thoughtful person with his book 'The World is Flat' offering some compelling reasons to believe it is, then maybe I'm wrong and flat-earth thinking about layers, spans, and space ratios is perfectly fine and will help organizations perform effectively.

I'm assuming that the thinking about standard numbers on layers and spans and space allocation is at best misleading for the following reasons:

1. Managers are too ready to take a norm and ratios as an instruction to implement. Without careful thought and relating the value of the norm to the particular situation things are likely to go wrong.
2. Norms do not address the qualitative, cultural, competency aspects of the work and how it is actually performed and the personal preferences involved
3. Where employees have much wider access to information (a generalization because some organizations and cultures do not allow transparency of information or widespread access) this attacks the command and control approach implied in 'layers and spans'. See the HBR blog on radical transparency for more on this
4. As workers have the ability and tools/technology in many organizations to work away from base, and the nature of work itself changes, then ideas of space allocation based on previously tracked occupancy rates erode
5. Organizational network analysis and things like sociometric badges are showing us that the way work gets done is less through layers and spans, or sitting in specific space designated for example, for 4 – 6 person meetings, but more in informal coalitions and networks of conversations. (See Chris Rodgers' book on Informal Coalitions or the work being done on 'neuro leadership' – though I'm not so sure on this one).

I'll discuss each of these five points in a bit more detail below.

Norms and ratios: In my files I came across a Federal Agency's 2012 proposed space standards as follows:

Senior Executives, 150 sq ft, enclosed office
Supervisors (80%) 120 sq ft, enclosed office
Attorneys (sensitive info), 100 sq ft, enclosed office
Supervisors (20%) 60 sq ft, workstation
Federal full-time attorney (non-sensitive info) 60 sq ft, workstation
Contractors, grantees, part time, 30 sq ft, workstation
Federal teleworkers @ 3+ days/week 30 sq ft, unassigned shared 2:1

What's interesting about this is that it neatly shows the connection between level of staff and space allocated. I guess it could be extended to show the ratios of span of control for each level of staff. I found that in a Bain Capability Brief: Streamlining Spans and Layers (2012) which states that:

Our analysis shows that in an average company, a manager has a span of six to seven direct reports and the organization has eight to nine layers between the top leadership and the frontline employee. Best-in-class companies in the database have average spans ranging between 10 and 15 direct reports and no more than seven layers. Of course, much depends on the type of job: "skills-based" jobs such as brand managers or engineers are usually well served with a span of six to eight, while "task-based" jobs such as shop-floor or call-center supervisors have higher spans of 15 or more.

But is this type of quantitative data useful? The clue may lie in the statement 'much depends on the type of job'. Norms don't account well for the type of work, for managerial style, for employee competence and so on that would make for more informed discussion on appropriate layers/spans/space allocation.

Cultural aspects: Think about the workforce you are part of. Whatever the space allocation is (assuming it has been determined and not just evolved over time), you'll see individuals using the space differently. In one company I worked in which had lots of 'quiet booths' and telephone rooms, people opted to make calls from the stair wells or huddled against the windows. In another the 4 -6 person meeting rooms were rejected in favor of the cafe area (and not because there was a shortage of small meeting rooms). No matter how many utilization studies are done they are simply snapshots, not a dynamic process of how work changes in response to contextual demands. Basing either space allocation and/or layers and span decisions around benchmark and precedent doesn't allow for the continuously changing nature of work and/or the day to day decisions and interactions going on about it.

Information availability: moving people from offices into open plan spaces has upsides and downsides. Many think it increases managerial involvement because the managers become part of the conversations. People can participate in a discussion if they hear something of interest in the open space – the premise behind 'collaboration'. Information availability through multiple channels may make it both easier for employees to have a voice, and for managers to manage more people. On the latter managers have told me that through various technologies such as IM, SharePoint, and video conferencing they have a much better grip on what their staff are doing, and at the same time the staff become more self-reliant, and the managers can effectively manage more people.

Space allocation on precedent: The US General Services Administration last year updated a 2011 guide Workspace Utilization Benchmark which contains comparisons of ten organizations (6 private sector). The guide makes the point that:

When determining the best way to forecast and allocate workspace and support knowledge workers, today's architects, designers, facilities and real estate professionals, and workplace consultants must consider the following factors:

  • Space availability;
  • Energy costs;
  • Operation and maintenance costs;
  • Ever-changing mission requirements;
  • Security concerns;
  • Emergency management planning;
  • Alternative workplace arrangements
  • The new mobile workforce.

This implies that space norms are just that – usually they are based on averages and precedents and are not based in rigorous thinking into the future about 'ever changing mission requirements' or 'alternative workplace arrangements' – number of contractors, seasonal workers, variations to work schedules, etc. Predictions, scenarios, and simulations on a range of factors drawn from non-traditional data like organizational network analysis or sociometric badging mentioned earlier along with organizational debate on the business strategy for the coming few years might give a different view of space allocation.

Informal networks: what caught my eye in the Bain document was the comment:

Agreement on the right level of spans and layers doesn't always translate into action. Managers protect people or move employees to other areas of the business. Very often excuses mount. ("It's not a good time.") At this stage, senior management reviews, where people are held accountable for the targets, can give momentum to the change. It also helps to link the targets for spans and layers to key performance metrics-and ultimately, the compensation- of top executives.

It hints at the informal political aspects of the organization that come into play – not just in terms of layers and spans, but also in terms of feelings of territorialism around space, or use of it. The cultural, informal, social, and idiosyncratic elements of any specific organization should, in my view, play a much larger a part, if not a key part, in space decisions, and layers and spans discussions than the norms and benchmark data, that appear to currently inform what gets agreed.

Let me know your views on the norms around space allocation and ratios around layers and spans. Are they useful?

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