Some stalwart principles of management were rendered obsolete by the switch to remote working — including how managers should set up their span of control to get the best out of a team.
Your span of control involves your managers' scope of responsibilities and how many people they're looking after. Different departments with different objectives and skill profiles will thrive under different spans of control.
On top of that, setting up your span of control effectively can be made more complex by the communicative and administrative demands of remote working. Building relationships with remote team members (or between remote team members) is not as simple as when things are in-office. There are more opportunities for knowledge siloing and more challenges when it comes to ensuring employee wellness.
Balancing the pros and cons of both wide and narrow spans of control and how your team's profile matches up to them is the core challenge when figuring out the best span for your team.
Understanding Span of Control
Your “span of control” is the number of employees you, as a manager, are directly responsible for. A manager with a wide span of control is personally responsible for many reports. A manager with a narrow span of control is responsible for just a few reports. A manager with a narrow span might still be at the head of a large department, but that department will be split into smaller groups run by peer managers who then report back to their department manager.
Your span of control will dictate the degree of autonomy that your employees enjoy. Your span of control also affects how easy it is to keep your team/stakeholders to sync and share information.
Each department will have unique span of control based on team goals and structure.
There's no hard-and-fast rule for an ideal span of control. It's tough to standardize even with solid benchmarking. Let's say we've got two sales departments from two companies selling a similar product — you might think that a similar span of control would be optimal for each.
Not necessarily. Depending on the team's target market, their processes, and the exact role of management, they might have very different ideal spans of control.
The rule, then, is that your span of control must be carefully adapted based on the nature of a given department.
For example, creative departments full of autonomous workers might benefit from a wider span. On the other hand, a sales department with a need for higher standardization in process and more coaching would benefit from a narrow span of control.
How Remote Working Can Complicate Your Span of Control
Remote working makes calculating your span of control more challenging because of the increased variables surrounding communication, knowledge sharing, and productivity.
A remote or partially remote workforce gives a manager less room for what you might call “casual” supervision — no more breezing by your team member's desk to check in or talking shop when you run into each other at lunch. That lack of face-time also provides fewer natural opportunities to build relationships, both between yourself and your team and among the members of that team.
A remote workforce also increases the risk of knowledge silos developing, as people become more caught up in their work with less in-the-room incentive to share information.
To decide on the right span of control, you’ll need to reflect on your employees' approach to remote work. Some employees are organically motivated self-starters. They've naturally adjusted to the autonomy of home-working, and a wide span of control will let them get on with what they do best. Others might be wildly smart and talented but prone to waywardness when they're outside the office environment. They'll benefit from the more frequent remote communication and supervision in a narrow span of control.
The Pros and Cons of a Wide Span of Control
A wide span of control involves a higher number of reports per manager. It's best for teams that thrive on creativity and knowledge sharing, where managers' main jobs are to act as coordinators and conduits for information.
- Reduces the temptation to micromanage
- Lowers the likelihood of knowledge silos forming
- Harder for managers to reach maximum personal productivity
- Harder to focus on employee wellness
Pro: Makes it more difficult to micromanage
Managers who are detail-oriented perfectionists can make for great administrators, but that kind of ethos can also lead to the temptation to micromanage your team. If you, as a manager, are prone to occasional control-freakery, a remote workforce may amplify this temptation due to a lack of casual in-office oversight.
A wide span of control reduces this risk, as a manager will simply have too many reports to worry about to be able to think about micromanaging them.
Pro: Lower likelihood of knowledge silos forming
When one or a few people on a team or in a department are in sole possession of information the whole collective can benefit from, you have a knowledge silo. It hampers your team's adaptability and efficiency. Siloing is an even more substantial possibility when colleagues are not in-office to hold impromptu standups or share memos containing important info.
A wide span of control can lower this risk, too. Peer-managed groups in departments with a narrow span of control have less direct communication across that department, making silos more likely. The manager of a department with a wide span of control has a view across all team members and can act as a conduit for spreading new information to personnel who could really use it.
Con: Harder for managers to reach maximum personal productivity
With so many reports to supervise, a manager with a wide span of control will not be getting a lot of their own work done. They're likely to be in back-to-back standups and one-to-ones for most of the day. When they're not, they'll have to be working with the information they receive during those meetings — coming up with wellness plan improvements, creating knowledge-sharing resources, and so on.
If your department requires a manager to be hands-on with plenty of individual responsibility (e.g., a coordinator of coders who also writes code themselves), a wide span of control will make life difficult for them.
Con: Harder to focus on employee wellness
Because of the smaller amount of attention a wide-span manager can apportion to each employee, a wide span of control is not necessarily well-optimized for remote employee wellness.
Remote employee wellness (just like any other form of employee wellness is no minor thing. Taking care of their team is a vital aspect of any manager's job, regardless of their span of control. With burnout on the rise in remote workers since mid-2020, managing these risks by building personal relationships with employees is essential.
Perhaps your company has an excellent all-round approach to employee wellness, with lots of peer support, employee resource groups, and free counseling available. In that case, a wide span of control won't be too obstructive, as the wider community will pick up the slack if a manager is stretched too thin. If, on the other hand, your wellness plan relies on one-to-ones between manager and team member, a wide span may limit the amount of attention you, as a manager, can give those in need.
The Pros and Cons of a Narrow Span of Control
A narrow span of control means each manager has fewer direct reports, with more peer managers picking up the slack and reporting back to you, the team lead or department manager. This is best for teams with fewer processes in place and allows managers to get their own hands dirty while remaining responsible for coordination.
- Easier to manage departments with few standardized processes
- Fewer reports mean maximum personal productivity for managers
- Easier to meet coaching and wellness goals
- Knowledge silos form more easily
- Higher levels of supervision can be a limit on creativity
Pro: Easier to manage departments with few standardized processes
A narrow span of control makes managing departments with fewer standardized processes more straightforward, as team members have a direct line of consultation. It can be difficult to remote-manage a department like product design, which is hard to standardize, without limiting creativity. With a narrow span of control, your team members will always have a direct line of communication to their peer manager and a familiar set of teammates in their smaller pod to guide them.
Pro: Fewer reports mean maximum personal productivity for managers
Though they still have to work with their peer managers, a manager with a narrow span of control has fewer direct reports. Managers with lots of individual responsibility and productivity requirements will find it easier to meet them if they have fewer reports to worry about.
Pro: Easier to meet coaching and wellness goals
With a narrow span of control, each manager will primarily be taking information from their squadron of peer managers, each of whom is responsible for a handful of team members. This means that duties of care, as well as of administration, are shared between managers and peer managers.
This makes it much easier to meet coaching and employee wellness goals. There are more touchpoints for team members to raise concerns and ask questions. Peer managers can focus on giving more in-depth wellness and coaching support to a smaller number of reports, while overall managers can focus on the bigger picture.
Con: Higher likelihood of knowledge silos forming
In a narrow span of control, the greater delegation of management responsibilities to peer managers can result in knowledge silos forming.
A manager with a narrow span of control will need to be particularly diligent in encouraging knowledge and resource sharing between peer-managed remote teams to prevent siloing. Making sure knowledge gets around can be made easier by using the right tools for facilitating whole-team knowledge sharing. Product teams will find a tracking plan like Avo's practical while sharing information between sales pods is more straightforward using a tool like Chorus.ai Deal Hub.
Con: Higher degree of management can sap creativity
Micromanagement is more likely to creep in with narrow spans of control in small teams with a lot of oversight. This can kill off creativity as team members are given comparatively little independence.
If you're managing a department where creativity is paramount (e.g., product design or marketing), the narrow span of control might limit your team's creative powers.
Which Span of Control Is Best for You?
A preferable span of control is one that is well adapted to your team's profile and the work they do. Survey your team's needs. Do they need more or less oversight? Is there a need to put more focus on wellness? Do you, as a manager, need fewer hands-on obligations to make sure you're hitting your own productivity goals?
Transparently sharing expectations for individual and managerial work can help align your team on output and company goals.
Then, check those needs against the following lists to determine if your ideal span of control is wider or narrower.
A wider span of control is best for...
- Remote teams with strong wellness programs
- Managers who have low individual productivity requirements
Remote teams with little need for oversight, either because...
- Members’ roles are complex and benefit from high degrees of autonomy or because
- Strong remote-friendly standardized processes are in place, or because
- Team members’ tasks are standardized and require fewer meetings
A narrower span of control is best for...
- Departments that need to share lots of information fluidly between stakeholders
- Departments remotely onboarding new hires or that have a focus on coaching
- Managers who have a larger number of duties outside their management role
- Creating team spirit in a remote team
There's no doubt that team members can enjoy the perks of remote work. In fact, companies that enable remote workers have a 25% lower employee turnover rate. While their teammates are feeling the benefit, it falls to management to make remote working work.
Embracing the span of control that suits your team and their needs is the key to doing so. Analyze your department to figure out if it works best with a lot of autonomy or greater standardization. Review whether your team members benefit from high synergy in a small pod or work best when they have greater independence. Take your own requirements as a manager and team leader into account as well.
Knowing all that, the right span of control will become perfectly clear.