The Danish Flat Hierarchy: Help or Hassle?
Office perfection or idealism gone mad? Unpacking the Danish mentality and flat hierarchy.
A recent study by World Economic Forum's called Global Competitiveness Report 2018, indicates that Denmark has the flattest work hierarchy in the world, beating 139 other countries.
Related: Networking Is Different in Denmark
WEF's report calls it a "willingness to delegate authority," and while that sounds like a good thing for most companies, it comes with a downside, too. As the CEO of Danish-based company, I want to explore what this means in practice, how we handle hierarchy across multiple offices and our method for direct feedback and communication.
Airtame is a Danish tech startup that produces a wireless HDMI solution for professional settings. Our headquarters is situated in Copenhagen. We also have an office in Brooklyn, California and remote workers globally. In total, we're more than 90 employees.
The Danish mentality
A flat hierarchy or management structure means that employees are more likely to take things up directly with the CEO or manager in charge. It's about creating a space where everyone, no matter how junior their role is, may speak and offer their ideas, and maybe even criticisms.
This Danish mentality might stem from the progressive socialism we have within the fibers of Denmark and the more relaxed approach to corporate working. Here, we call each other and our boss by their first name, we discuss executive decisions together and encourage family time. In sum, a solid work-life balance is a fundamental lifeblood to success here.
Danish companies are known for encouraging everyone to contribute, meaning that the "general atmosphere in a Danish workplace is professional, but also casual and informal," states the University of Southern Denmark in an article that explains the Danish working culture.
The cons of having a flat hierarchy
A truly flat hierarchy may sound tempting, but they rarely exist in a pure form. Instead, you could wind up with pseudo-flat structures where there's a powerful management formation in place -- you just won't notice it right away.
If that's the case, the office will be driven by fear rather than transparency because employees are never sure when it's alright to speak their mind. In that sense, it's not a flat structure at all. Of course, that's only if the right measures haven't been taken.
Sure, a company with no boss and no rules might sound like a splendid place to work, but the lack of a system with structures and regulations in place can make things even worse. Consider annual or seasonal reviews. Without them, there's no way to track progress, structure growth and of course take the temperature on your employees' well-being within a company. With no rules, you can't control those who may or may not take up positions of informal power.
The pros of having a flat hierarchy
One of the first things you'll notice if you're working in a flat working hierarchy, such as what most Danish companies provide (or at least attempt to), is that employees feel empowered, no matter what their job title or position is. If you aren't allowed to speak up and express your opinions, then why should you care about the decisions made?
Instead, the open and flat structure invites all employees to contribute, and that makes them more productive and creative. With an all-hands approach to work culture, everyone is pitching in and contributing into building it, and it stems from having wider team meetings and an open questioning policy.
Top-down structures, whether openly in place or pseudo, are extremely rigid and foster an atmosphere of fear. Strive for an open environment instead where people can talk candidly and be constructively critical, whatever their pay grade. With the right amount of rules, the work environment will feel like a safe place to share your thoughts and a guiding hand when or if things get shaky.
The Airtame mentality
While I wouldn't say that we have a totally flat structure at Airtame, I do think we have a transparent one. In some ways, we've been able to define our healthy, transparent structure due to our upbringing as a wide-eyed startup, where contributions were crucial, and there was simply no time to establish any "distance" between founder and new starter, manager and employee.
We have an all-hands approach to quality assurance, not just in terms of product development and feedback loops, but in our people team too. We actively seek out feedback from the entire company, which can sometimes be stultifying and slow down work processes, but ultimately is a valuable, good thing for the overall growth and direction of the business.
We use Peakon, a fellow Danish-born startup, for driving unvarnished employee feedback, which translates into actionable data for the people team. Bi-weekly, the people team will send a Peakon request with up to 10 anonymous questions for all employees to answer, and it gives us an overview of what we're doing well and what we should think about improving.
Another factor that adds to our flat hierarchy is the all-hands support initiative, where people across the company -- from founders to interns -- are encouraged (or lightly forced) into joining customer support sessions, answering questions from would-be customers are responding to criticism directly from our users.
Is a flat hierarchy for you?
Maybe not a truly flat hierarchy, but I believe transparency is something we should all strive for. Transparency drives a positive, diverse and open work culture. People feel comfortable organizing after-hours office events, because of the lack of hostility and rigidity during the 9 to 5, just as they feel comfortable voicing their concerns and ideas during office hours.
Airtame's structure isn't perfect. We've hired over 40 people just this year, and it's important for us to take stock and see how that changes the structure. We'll be starting 2019 looking at how we can establish a way for employees to be more vocal about how they think things are going, and provide even more opportunity to question. We're constantly sharpening each other's tools, and I'm proud of that.
A transparent structure is fluid. It's inspired by new hires that bring valuable ideas and new insights to the table. It's built on the collective feedback and data you receive as you grow and learn. Embrace your inner Dane and give it a try!