We all know someone whose phone or smartwatch constantly buzzes with notifications during meetings. The first time it happens, you’re patient. The thirtieth time it happens, you feel defeated.
That’s because that vibrating device – or those invisible third parties in the room – sends a signal that you’re not a top priority. If you’re taking notes on what makes an ideal manager, this isn’t it.
But unfortunately, managers are often spread thin and stuck in the middle of competing priorities. This leads to some serious multi-tasking, which can also quickly lead to burnout and a lackluster employee experience.
One way to combat this is taking a hard look at your people’s span of control, sometimes referred to as span of management, and determining an ideal employee to manager ratio.
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 (especially in this digital era when 9-5 has become obsolete). After all, managers oversee not only direct reports, but also report-to-report relationships and groups of reports for projects. And that span of control, according to the researcher V.A. Graicunas, creates an exponential amount of work.
There’s more to consider than just employee to manager ratio. With every report comes multiple relationships to manage – and it grows exponentially with every addition to your team.
What’s more, employees that don’t receive the support they need are more likely to be disengaged, miss goals, and look for roles elsewhere. Your employee to manager ratio therefore affects every aspect of your company, and analyzing these numbers needs to be a part of your business strategy.
In short, when leadership feels the strain of their span of management, it’s time to add more layers. Analyzing the span of control helps companies balance management responsibilities, which leads to more focused managers and engaged employees.
To decide how many people should report to one manager, most people leaders 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.
We hate to break it to you – span of management isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. Instead, there’s a general guideline that then fluctuates depending on team structure and roles.
The upside is, by determining the correct span of control for your individual teams, you’ll provide the proper amount of support and guidance each manager and team member needs to be successful.
A manager with a wide span of control is personally responsible for many reports.
A wide span of control benefits teams in which there’s less variance and complexity.
Potential benefits to a wide span of control include:
At the same time, a wide span of management can be overwhelming for managers, and may lead to:
Managers with a narrow span of control—or a small number of direct reports—run a tightly connected team.
A narrow span of control is best for teams with more variance and complexity in roles.
Potential benefits to a narrow span of control include:
But narrow spans of management aren’t always optimal. Small teams may lead to the formation of knowledge silos, causing employees to feel like they have little control or insight into company and team goals. In this case, team morale and innovation may drop. An ideal manager would combat this issue by scheduling cross-functional team meetings to drive creative thinking.
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?
You’re not alone in wondering about the perfect span of management; in fact, 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, you should seek a more holistic approach.
To discover what’s best for your teams, answer the following four questions. 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. This will help you determine a range to set a healthy span of control.
Along with overseeing employees, managers are responsible for individual, role-specific work. For example, a director of engineering may design a product’s API and set its technology standards, or 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 will be low. While it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t oversee any employees, they’ll need a low span of control to fulfill their roles’ duties.
Alternatively, roles that are mostly managerial with little individual work should have a wide span of control.
Consider Camila, a VP of Operations with 20 direct reports. With this many team members, she spends four days every week just conducting 1:1s and group meetings. She only has one day to focus on operational tasks, even though her job description says this work should be the majority of her role.
To help her stay on track, Camila’s boss reduces her span of control by 75% to balance her workload. We’ll do the math for you: she keeps five direct reports, while 15 of her other people are transferred to other managers. With a low span of control, she is able to knock out her management duties in one day every week, has more time to focus on individual tasks, and can provide more support to her people.
Scoring Question: What is the balance of individual versus managerial work in the role you’re structuring?
Since managers are responsible for guiding team members, you’ll want to consider how much assistance their direct reports need to navigate daily demands.
For instance, a manager for account executives (AEs) usually has a wide span of control, since all team members need the same training and experience similar demands. Once providing standardized training, the manager has time to support AEs with the more unpredictable side of the role, such as requests by potential customers.
On the other hand, a manager for a team with varied roles needs a narrow span of control because direct reports need different training and support. A head of product, for example, might have just five direct reports that work on everything from UX to product marketing. But with a narrow span of control, the manager is able to communicate all of the frequent, rapid changes that are made to the product and guide his employees through executing these updates.
Scoring question: Is the team’s work standardized?
Employees may complete similar tasks every day but still require oversight. Why? Because they need to develop a high level of expertise, which can take several years of training. An ideal manager for these team members is one who regularly offers guidance and skill development.
Take a graphic designer. While they come into a role with the necessary skills, they may require a long onboarding process (and further skill development) to create assets that meet brand standards. Knowing the level of ongoing training ahead of time will help People teams determine which managers need narrow spans of control so they can provide more support.
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?
Technology may not always increase leaders’ capacity to manage more people, but it sure as heck makes managing a remote workforce easier, which can help determine your span of control. And with 92% of people working or expecting to work in a remote or hybrid environment, companies need to plan how to better support and manage their people.
One way to do so is by being intentional about your HR tech stack. When managers are equipped with the right technology, they can lead more efficiently, effectively, and transparently.
By supporting 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. While there are a lot of platforms to choose from, consider the following areas of technology to decide if your managers can take on more direct reports.
But be forewarned – there’s such a thing as having too many technology tools. There’s actually a tipping point where more technology means more systems to navigate and data to bring together. You want technology to help your managers, not hinder their time management and decision-making.
To combat this, look for an all-in-one people data solution – like a modern people operations platform – that integrates with your HR tech stack. This way, managers will spend less time navigating computer tabs and more time supporting their people and diving into up-to-date information.
Scoring question: Do you provide technology to help guide management tasks?
Note: You’ll also want to ensure the technology counted above shouldn’t overlap (for example, multiple systems that house people data won’t help expand your managers’ span of control, but a platform for people data and project management platform will).
Tally up the scores from each question above to determine which span of control range is best for the team you’re structuring.
It doesn’t matter whether your company has ten 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 our ranges as a starting point for setting a manager’s span of control. Once you settle on a number— considering the factors mentioned above — check in with your managers regularly and adjust accordingly. It’s important to keep teams small enough so that they’re 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.
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