When a company is brand new, the organizational structure is flat. The founder leads a small team to get the company going. Their span of control—or number of direct reports—is manageable.
Startups often try to maintain this structure, even as they grow to 50+ employees. They think minimal leadership means less organizational politics. We managed to be successful without hierarchies so far, the thinking goes, so why introduce them now?
But at a certain point of growth, having too few managers creates too many problems. Communication chains break down, and management tasks overwhelm leaders. After all, managers oversee not only direct reports but also report-to-report relationships and groups of reports. And that, according to the researcher V.A. Graicunas, creates an exponential amount of work.
When leadership feels the strain of too many reports, it’s time to add more management layers. Analyzing the span of control helps companies balance management responsibilities, so teams can work efficiently.
Narrow or wide span of control? There’s no “right” answer
To decide how many people should report to one manager, most HR professionals ask the same question: should the span of control be narrow or wide? Narrow means a manager has few direct reports, and wide means they have many.
One “width” isn’t better than the other. Wide and narrow spans each come with unique trade-offs.
Wide span of control
Managers are spread thin when they must lead a large number of direct reports. With many employees to oversee, managers can provide only a minimal amount of supervision to each team member.
One upside is that employees enjoy autonomy, which typically benefits their work performance. Gallup reports that workers are 43% less likely to feel burnout if they control which tasks they work on, when they need to complete them, and how long they spend on each. A wide span may also be financially beneficial for the company, since fewer managers mean fewer leadership-level salaries to pay.
At the same time, a wide span can be overwhelming for managers. The more time they spend overseeing employees, the less time they have for their own work. Depending on the role, this imbalance can lead to lower productivity as they struggle to finish their tasks.
A wide span of control can also lead to confusion about roles. For a large number of employees to work together, they need to know who among them has decision-making power. But if they all directly report to one manager, that hierarchy can become unclear.
Narrow span of control
Managers with a narrow span of control—or a small number of direct reports—run a tightly connected team.
These managers can closely monitor and quickly communicate with employees since their teams are so small. This oversight helps team members stay on track and in sync with one another.
A narrow span also helps managers stay productive. With few people to manage, they should ideally have enough time to complete their non-managerial tasks.
But narrow spans aren’t always optimal. Small teams may lead to micromanagement, causing employees to feel like they have little to no control over their work. In this case, team morale and innovation may drop. After all, employees are unlikely to think creatively if only managers can share and implement new ideas.
Ask these 4 questions to find your ideal span of control
Understanding the difference between wide and narrow spans is helpful—but how do you figure out what a role’s exact number of direct reports should be?
People have been asking this question since the 1930s. The truth is, no single span of control can apply to every manager. Instead of looking for a magic number, we propose a more holistic approach.
Answer the following four questions about the managerial role you're structuring. Every answer has a numerical score. Tally your total when you’re finished to determine whether the role should have a low, medium, or high number of reports. We can’t provide an exact figure, but we will give you a range to help you set a healthy span of control.
1. What is the balance of individual versus managerial work in the role you’re structuring?
Along with overseeing employees, managers are responsible for individual, role-specific work. A director of engineering may design a product’s API and set its technology standards. A head of design may research fashion trends and develop patterns.
If these individual tasks are time-intensive, the manager’s capacity for direct reports is going to be low. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t oversee any employees. But to fulfill their roles’ duties, they’ll need a low span of control. Likewise, roles that are mostly managerial with little individual work should have a wide span of control.
Consider a VP of operations with 20 direct reports. With this many team members, the VP spends four days every week just conducting 1:1s and group meetings. She only has one day to focus on operations tasks, even though her job description says this work should be the majority of her job.
The VP’s boss reduces her span of control by 75% to balance her workload: 15 of her direct reports go to three other peer managers, and she keeps 5 reports.
With a low span of control, the VP is able to knock out her management duties in one day every week and has much more time to focus on individual tasks.
Scoring question: What is the balance of individual versus managerial work in the role you’re structuring?
2. Is the work that the role oversees standardized?
Managers are responsible for guiding team members through their jobs. But if employees’ work has clear guidelines, they’re going to need less assistance from their supervisors. In this case, their managers can have a large span of control since each employee requires little oversight.
Consider a large restaurant where one shift manager oversees 30 employees. Each team member doesn’t need much help because they know exactly how to do their job—bussers clean dishes, hosts welcome guests, and so on—so their manager gets a wide span of control.
On the other hand, employees with varied, unpredictable tasks can’t work as independently. They need narrow span managers who can provide sufficient direction to every employee.
A head of product, for instance, might have just 5 direct reports. With a narrow span of control, she is able to communicate all of the frequent, rapid changes that are made to the product and guide her employees through executing these updates.
Scoring question: Is the work that the role oversees standardized?
3. How much training will the manager need to provide to their direct reports?
Employees may do the same tasks every day, more or less, but still require lots of oversight. Why? Because their assignments require a high level of expertise that is developed over several years of training. These team members need managers who can regularly offer guidance because they have a small number of direct reports.
Take a bond trader. Their main task is consistent—buying and selling bonds. But it often takes years to become successful and trade large volumes. Traders must grow their network and build trust with buyers and sellers, along with learning how to read the market. With these gaps, junior traders need managers who have a narrow span and can help them build their skills.
Likewise, a manager who oversees positions that require minimal training can handle a wide span of control. If it doesn’t take long to get employees up to speed, managers can spread their time over many team members.
Scoring question: How much training will the manager need to provide to their direct reports?
4. How much management technology does the company have access to?
Decades ago, managers had less flexibility. They had to be in the office to meet with direct reports, and there were few tools to assist with reviewing team members’ performance.
Today, there is so much available technology that makes managing others more convenient:
- Communication technology: Video conferencing and instant messaging tools—like Zoom and Slack—help managers stay connected with their employees, even when they’re working remotely.
- Project management technology: Asana and Trello, for example, help managers organize and track the progress of employees’ work.
- Performance management technology: ChartHop offers performance management functionality that lets managers remotely give feedback to direct reports, set goals for them, and track their progress. These goals can then be set in the Employee Profile for all employees to access via the Org Chart, ensuring transparency and alignment cross teams.
These tools make it easier for managers to monitor their direct reports. A VP, for example, might save time by remotely conducting 1:1s via video conferencing instead of traveling every month to hold them in-person. Or a manager might find that remotely reviewing employees’ assignments and goals reduces the need for in-person oversight.
By taking on management tasks, technology increases leaders’ capacity—allowing them to widen their span of control without compromising on the amount of guidance they give each employee.
Scoring question: How much management technology does the company have access to?
Estimate your role’s ideal span of control
Tally up the scores from each question to see which span of control range is best for the role you’re structuring.
If you’re a ChartHop user, you can install this bundle to calculate the recommended span of control for each managerial position and understand how your current structure scores.
- Answer the four questions for every leadership position in the Data Sheet. Check out the documentation for how to answer them in bulk.
Watch as ChartHop calculates each manager’s ideal span of control, if their span is over or under its target range, and by how many reports the span of control should change.
- View the report and customize it as you wish filter it by department, location, etc. to start taking action.
Use our ranges as a starting point for setting a role’s span of control. Once you settle on a number—considering the factors mentioned in this guide—be sure to check in with the manager regularly. Adjust spans as needed to keep leaders’ workloads balanced, based on the feedback they share.
Calculate span of control to scale your organization
It doesn’t matter whether your company has 10 or 1,000 people. Companies of all sizes can benefit from rethinking the ideal span of control for each managerial role—especially in stages of intense growth or restructuring.
Use this guide to thoughtfully pair managers with direct reports. Keep teams small enough to be manageable for leaders but large enough to give employees some autonomy over their work. With this intentional approach to team structuring, your company will have a solid foundation for scaling.