Determining the Right Span of Control for Your Remote Workforce

Jun 22, 2022
Reading time: 10 min
Emily Connery
VP of People and Talent

The business world has witnessed numerous benefits from the shift to remote and hybrid work, including increased employee productivity and engagement. But this lack of manager supervision has many leaders feeling nervous moving forward.

No more breezing by your team member’s desk to check in or talking shop when you run into each other at lunch. No more grabbing a coffee – or creating other natural opportunities to build relationships – with your colleagues. And no more before-meeting chats (that usually result in knowledge sharing) as you wait for the slides to load.

These changes aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are aspects to consider when determining the right span of control for your remote or hybrid workforce. With your people out of sight, responsibilities – such as team engagement, goal-setting, collaboration, and mental health – become harder to juggle. So exactly how many people should one person manage for things to run smoothly?

By understanding your options, as well as each manager’s leadership style and department needs, you can confidently decide what works best for your company’s teams.

Understanding Span of Control

Span of control, also known as span management, is the number of employees for which someone is directly responsible.

There are two kinds: wide and narrow.

  • 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 less reports. This manager 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.
span of control remote work

The size of your organization and management style can help dictate your span of control.

It’s common for each department to have a unique span of control based on its goals and structure.

For instance, varied roles need a narrower span of control because each person on the team requires different coaching and encounters distinct challenges. Alternatively, a team in which roles are standardized can have a wider span of control.

Therefore, 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.

How Remote and Hybrid Work Can Complicate Your Span of Control

A remote or hybrid workforce makes calculating the ideal span of control more challenging because of the increased variables surrounding communication, knowledge sharing, and productivity.

Taking a proactive approach to supporting your people will be your best bet when it comes to syncing schedules, sharing information, and collaborating on projects.

To decide on the right span of control for any given group, you’ll need to reflect on your organizational complexity and 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 allow them to work effectively and efficiently. Others may be less independent; 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 in which there’s less variance and complexity, such as a team of account executives or talent recruiters. Below are the pros and cons for you to weigh to help determine if this is the right span of control for a given team.

Pros of a Wide Span of Control

  • There are shorter communication channels. Teams whose managers have a wide span of control have fewer levels beneath them, equating to a shorter communication channel from top to bottom. Since there are less layers to go through for communication, employees can move more quickly on projects and action items.
  • Employees will experience increased autonomy. Unless a manager is burning the candle at both ends, there’s only so much time in one day. A wide span of control is a possible forcing mechanism to dissuade managers from micromanaging because, logistically, it would be too challenging. What’s more, data shows that when granted autonomy, employees feel trusted, resulting in higher performance and extra effort.
  • Managers will have a more holistic view. A manager with a wide span of control has a more holistic view of what’s going on in the organization and on their team. Because everyone reports in, they have access to more information and can make better-informed decisions.

Cons of a Wide Span of Control

  • Managers are more of a coach instead of a player-coach. Things get more complicated when managers have a lot of direct reports. With so many people to supervise, managers may not have time to add another part to their role, and will therefore be positioned as a coach instead of an additional contributor.
  • The relationship between employee and manager isn’t as intimate. Due to time constraints, managers and their people will probably talk less (about work and personal lives), as well as have less time to problem solve. Due to this lack of personal connection, managers may find it harder to notice changes in employee engagement. Ultimately, this creates a higher attrition risk, since managers make or break the employee experience.

The Pros and Cons of a Narrow Span of Control

A narrow span of control means managers have fewer direct reports. This is best for teams with more variance and complexity in roles, such as a marketing team composed of roles from design to content. Below are the pros and cons for you to weigh to help determine if a narrow span of control is the right fit.

Pros of a Narrow Span of Control

  • Manager can be a player-coach. With fewer direct reports, managers will most likely have more time to complete non-managerial tasks, and can therefore take on more responsibilities.
  • Better career development and stronger coaching. With a narrow span of control, managers have more detailed oversight. Oftentimes, a junior manager can be more effective to their people because they have more empathy and better methods of educating because they were recently in their shoes.
  • Stronger team community. Smaller teams provide your people with a familiar set of teammates with similar functions. Having these support systems in place not only helps your people feel supported, but also a part of a community. Fostering a sense of belonging has become a key priority for employees and companies in recent years. According to research by Deloitte, workplace belonging not only leads to employee happiness, but can also result in a 56% increase in job performance.

Cons of a Narrow Span on Control

  • Higher likelihood of knowledge silos forming. Since teams are small within a narrow span of control, there’s a higher likelihood of knowledge silos forming. Scheduling cross-collaborative meetings and using platforms that increase connectivity, such as a people operations platform, can help prevent siloed knowledge.
  • Managers are farther removed from the executive. When there’s many levels between managers and executives, managers may fail to understand overall team strategy and mission. That’s because they can have blinders to specific roles versus zooming out and acknowledging the birds-eye view shared by colleagues of a higher level.

Deciding Which Span of Control Is Best

Your organization’s complexity helps determine how large a manager’s span of control can be. You also need to consider the needs of your remote team and what additional support they may need when working for home.

If your company plans to scale in the future, consider keeping direct reports to eight so managers can still support their people. After that, you’ll want to layer so your team leads don’t feel exhausted or burned out.

Either way, you will want to review your teams’ span of control as part of workforce planning. By using a dynamic, visual org chart, you can focus more time on making people decisions and less time creating and dragging boxes on your screen.

Don’t let a remote or hybrid team hinder your company's growth and productivity. Learn how InVision successfully scaled their workforce and continued to ensure their employees had an engaging, rewarding employee experience.

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