Working within a matrix organizational structure was already more complicated than traditional structures, and then COVID-19 forced more people into virtual working arrangements. Organizations of every size have been affected by shuttered offices, remote workers, and greater reliance on technology. It has changed the way we work, the locations we work from, and how we interact with colleagues.
Companies that use a matrix organizational structure face more challenges than those using traditional command-and-control designs. In both structures, employees have a “solid line” reporting relationship to a manager who directs their work and reviews their performance. However, in a matrix structure, employees are also assigned to one or more cross-functional teams and dotted-line managers. Matrix teams may be created temporarily to address certain projects, or they may be organized permanently around a certain product category or a specific customer segment. Matrix structures provide deeper cross-departmental expertise to address specific needs common to the entire organization. While the matrix approach brings numerous benefits, it also creates more complex reporting and decision-making processes than a traditional structure.
The first principle of a good matrix is to provide clarity around who is responsible for making decisions as well as on the purpose of each dimension of the matrix. An effective matrix organizational structure sets the conditions for people in the matrix regarding how they are supposed to work. The structure conveys what each dimension of the matrix is intended to do. It helps employees make decisions, know when to include other people in those decisions, and understand when to escalate issues to management.
Unfortunately, not all matrix organizations actually function in that ideal way. Sometimes they are far less well-defined, so people must navigate the processes as they go. They may stumble into the proverbial landmine, such as making a solo decision on an issue when they should have consulted other stakeholders.
Regardless of how well a matrix organizational structure is constructed, the pandemic-driven movement to remote work has, in some cases, exacerbated the challenges of having two or more reporting lines. Remote work makes it more difficult for employees to navigate within the matrix. The inability to see certain colleagues in person; changes in the frequency of interactions; and replacing live meetings with video calls present additional obstacles for those in a matrix.
Faced with these challenges, what steps can employees and managers take to help ensure the matrix organizational structure can continue to work in an effective and efficient way, even when they are working virtually? Here are a few suggestions to ensure everyone has a common understanding of how to move forward.
- Circle back to your solid line manager and your dotted line manager(s). Clarify how expectations have changed with remote ways of working. Here are a few simple questions you can ask to determine whether your managers’ expectations have changed: How often do you need updates? What meetings do you want to be included in? Do I still have permission to move forward on certain decisions, or do we need to rethink who makes which decisions?
- Reiterate or update expectations. Review how new ways of working due to COVID and other business changes will impact your employees and your colleagues in the matrix. Review how your expectations have changed and how you want employees to think about their work under these conditions. Proactively reach out to each employee to clarify your expectations and where necessary, guide them through the new environment.
- Re-contract how things will be done going forward with your dotted-line colleagues. Clarify points of interaction and revisit escalation points when questions or disagreements arise on how to handle certain issues. Negotiate ahead of time how you will jointly manage performance – particularly now that neither the solid line nor the dotted line manager may be able to directly see the contributions made by an employee who is no longer in the office.
These simple steps can help make sure the matrix organizational structure continues to function at a high level. Maintaining clear decision-making and reporting lines while many people are working from home will go a long way to overcoming the disruptions we are experiencing through remote work and other changes to the “normal” office setting.