Span of Control is a concept that I learned in my emergency services training both in the fire service and law enforcement corrections. Yet this topic is not something I read or hear about often, if ever, in the engineering community. The idea behind this concept is based on how many people a leader can effectively manage in a given scenario. In the emergency services world, this normally works best in the range of 2 to 5 people. In the business world, this range may extend upwards to 10 or more subordinates to one leader. There are a lot of factors that go into determining how many subordinates one leader can effectively manage. Each and every situation will be different.
According to the Oxford Languages definition, Span of Control means, “the area of activity and number of functions, people, or things for which an individual or organization is responsible.” When applied to management, this essentially means how many people can you be responsible for and effectively oversee.
In a narrow span of control, leaders can be more involved with their subordinates because there are fewer of them, and the time a leader has to devote to each team member is greater. As the span of control widens, the leader’s resources diminish. This includes time and the number of interactions, reducing the spread across a greater number of people.
As I mentioned before, no two scenarios will be the same. Leaders are at all different capacities and levels of experience and expertise. Team members are in the same situation and some will require more oversight than others. It is common for a less experienced manager to have a greater level of success when they have fewer people to oversee. Even an experienced manager may need to have fewer people to oversee when those working under him need more mentoring and assistance. Considering the types of people who are working in your organization. This contributes to your ability to anticipate when and where changes in the span of control may be needed.
Delegation of Authority
Professional Services such as engineering and architecture are unique in a sense because an engineer in charge of a project may serve in different capacities on the design team. In some cases, the person working with the client is the engineer in charge. However, not all project managers are licensed professionals ultimately responsible for the work. This adds another level of complexity to the span of control and delegates responsibility to those on the design team.
Delegation of Authority is the leader’s task of shifting responsibility for a matter to another member of the team, therefore, basically removing themselves from direct oversight. This does not eliminate the leader’s responsibility from coordinating with the person the responsibility is shifted to.
If you get your ego in your way, you will only look to other people and circumstances to blame.Jocko Willink
The delegation of authority is a leader’s opportunity to share the responsibility. As Jocko Willink teaches, ownership of the responsibility lies with the leader as it moves up the chain of command. If you are trusted with the responsibility, you are also responsible for acting on it. At the same time, the leader who shared it with you is responsible for your failure, just as you would be. This continues from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy.
Hybrid and Remote Work Environment
With the evolution of technology, remote and hybrid work environments have been embraced by some companies with mixed success. Since March 2020, this evolution has rapidly accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Government officials urged businesses to disperse their staff away from central congregating areas where the spread of the COVID virus would spread more rapidly. The laws and regulations enacted forced the hands of businesses to take action. This required many to embrace a remote work environment if they were going to survive the impacts of the pandemic.
As this happened, the face-to-face span of control concept evolved and changed. Leaders of all levels were forced to change how they interacted with their teams. For some, they lost control of team members and lacked the ability to look over their shoulders in the cubical. Now, they were forced to make an effort to communicate directly and rely less on noticing something as they were working. At the same time, this environment forces the less experienced to ask more questions. They have to actively work to avoid getting lost in the mix.
I have had the opportunity to work remotely for nearly 6 months in 2020. Since then have experienced a hybrid workplace where I work remotely a few days a week. This is what I have found:
More Experienced Staff
For staff with tenure and experience, especially licensed professionals, working remotely came easy. For many, it resulted in a burst of efficiency and production. I attribute this to the ability to optimize time and effort and reduce distractions and interruptions. For 6 months, I didn’t have anyone walk into my office, or stop me mid-thought to ask a question. Of course, my phone would ring, and my email notifications would appear, but, I could ignore them much easier than someone walking in behind me.
These staff members work best with task-oriented responsibilities. “Complete this” or “report back on this” type scenarios. In engineering, this can be grading a site, designing a storm drain, or detailing a stormwater management facility. As an engineer in charge, it is an opportunity to perform a detailed review of a plan set or report without interruption.
In my experience, these staff members had great success in remote and hybrid work environments.
Less Experienced Staff
For emerging staff members with less experience, hybrid and remote work environments come with more challenges. As new staff members grow, they need mentoring and oversight. The remote workplace has essentially opened the door to a road with unlimited ramps, no guardrails, and no speed bumps. They are free to press the pedal to the metal and take off.
In an office scenario, you could look over their shoulder. It is much easier to throw out a set of stop-sticks and force them to slow down. You can stop them from merging onto some unknown road to nowhere. Taking the leash off and setting them free challenges them and their leaders alike.
For these individuals, all-inclusive task-based responsibilities become harder. You cannot simply tell them to design a storm drain system for a site if they don’t know how to determine the inlet capacity. They may know parts of the duties and responsibilities for the task at hand. In most cases, a reduction in the span of control is necessary.
Team leaders should consider delegating authority to the more experienced team members. Use their experience to assist the less experienced ones with their duties and responsibilities.
Span of Control Impacts Quality
Span of Control has a direct relationship with the company’s ability to produce the highest quality of work. When the span of control is too wide, leadership loses the ability to have adequate interactions with staff. Team members lack the support they need for the work they are doing. When it’s too narrow, bureaucracy and oversight clutter the ability of an organization to take action.
Finding a balance in your organization is key to success. Recognize the positive and negative impacts on your team structure. Learn how authority delegation opens the door to improving the work you do. The T in the G.R.E.A.T. acronym speaks to making adjustments and tweaks to the systems you have in place to produce the best work possible. Considering the span of control among the various levels of your company is certainly an aspect that needs to be considered on a fairly regular basis.
I encourage each of you to leverage the experiences, insight, and knowledge each of you has to make a good and lasting impact on those around you. Span of Control is not about micro-management but is focused on the ability to EFFECTIVELY MANAGE. Use this to your advantage and use this to produce better work in the future.