The flattened reality of ‘flat offices’
One of the things that startups often proclaim with much pride in hiring communication is something called a ‘flat office’. Often, this is accompanied by how one can take up issues, comments, suggestions and such-like matters, if any, with CEOs of the said company, directly; the more radical ones even commit to CEO’s time over table tennis or drinks, depending on the CEO’s predilections.
It’s also in keeping with the ‘zero bullshit’ policy that many claims to adhere to, which is entirely noble in its premise, for as anyone who has worked more than 4 man hours at a more corporate setup will testify, bullshit takes up more time than actual work at some offices. Bullshit like sending mails to people in offices many miles away for use of an adaptor or want of a meeting room at a specific hour. More devious bullshit could be like the ill-conceived dance between Business and IT on matters that could range from malware to middleware, while vendor partners contemplate the meaning of life in this interval. Enough said, fighting bullshit is a cause people can get around to backing.
The ‘flat office’ was one such measure aimed at achieving less bullshit. In principle, it meant that the organization was more horizontal in its outlook. People didn’t have to climb 3 levels of hierarchies and exchange 400 mails, back and forth, to get stuff done; you just went to the guy who could get the stuff done or was standing in between you and the stuff that needed getting done, and asked him kindly or employed more compelling methods from The Art of War.
You didn’t have to hold your breath and stoop just the right amount to show respect and mild subservience to someone who was a couple of rungs up the ladder that you have chosen to climb. Your role wasn’t as unidimensional anymore, you could ask around and gain knowledge and expertise from non-overlapping functions; for instance, as a Sales guy you could head over to Product and ask them when a particular feature or module was due for release in the roadmap. When informed with random bits of information from various corners of the office, you got to piece together the macro perspective of your company’s workings. Overall, I’d say it was a welcome step away from the erstwhile bureaucratic setup.
It’s true that the flat office did break corporate ground; but it is now disfigured beyond belief
But, as it often happens, the shining disco ball blinds the central tenets of why principles are initiated in the first place. Now, the flat office is a hoary mess. People bumping into other frustrated people randomly, kanbans longer than a 11” Mac screen can display, priorities that have to be numbered 1.1 and 1.2, two or three reporting managers competing to see who can be your more significant other, work that is more diverse than a Benetton ad, desks shared between Sales, Marketing and the Building Superintendent, and worst of all, charger cables plugged into sockets four chairs away. The inhumanity!
And gods help you if you’re a shared resource, to begin with, like a designer or something. You could be designing Android screens in the first half, applying photo filters to your boss’ LinkedIn DP a few hours later, and then maybe it’s somebody’s birthday and you have to photoshop the schmuck’s face onto a digital birthday card that can be circulated amongst forty other folks whose lives are that much more enriched because of your ingenuity. Maybe, you have to draw cat pictures. I hope for your sake, maybe not. At least when you’re an intern, you don’t really have to tell your parents what you do at work.
The thing about startups is that learning isn’t confined to a budget head; it’s a way of being — you try a bunch of stuff, then you do more of what works and stomp out what doesn’t
What of the upper echelons in the once hallowed cabins of power? Well, your life is worse enough as a startup CEO, getting pulled twenty different ways, now, you have plenty more of that and you can’t even put your feet up on the desk once a while. I mean, what’s the point of it all if you can’t even put your feet up on the desk once a while? Middle management is ill-equipped to get shit done. Because, barring Admin folks, who have decades of training for such-like nonsense and who are masters of suffering random requests stoically, mere mortals have no grounding to deal with this new ecosystem. Your minions, who once under your command would come through on your foolish premises (“let’s go app-only”), are no longer your exclusive right to enslave.
Incidentally, productivity tools crossed over $5 billion in combined revenues, last year.
As contemporary philosopher, Sam Smith, wrote, “too much of a good thing won't be good for long.” It’s true; the flat office did break corporate ground. But, it is now disfigured beyond belief. To start with, put the damn CEO a safe distance away from the rest of the folks. And let him put his feet on the desk. Cubicles were bad, but you know what’s worse? Having to share a 14 feet long desk with folks you have no business with, quite literally. How about reasonable partitions that you can get for a steal at the next funded startup? Seems like a good enough compromise. And for god’s sakes, keep org structures simple and intuitive. Like, a Designer reports to the Head of Design or the Product Manager. Want cat pictures post haste? Bribe the concerning manager [+ be a good manager and pass on some crumbs to your folks.]
The thing about startups is that learning isn’t confined to a budget head; it’s a way of being. You try a bunch of stuff, then you do more of what works and stomp out what doesn’t. But, the problem with conforming to startup credentials is that you have to look and act a certain way, lest people mistake you for one of those boring corporate types. Even if that means, you aren’t sincere about your intentions. The shining disco balls are blinding. The hope is that you can see beyond those to discover what’s good and true.