“Someone rang the other day and asked to speak to the boss and when I told him we don’t have one, but that he could talk to any one of us, he just couldn’t understand it,” says Ken Barlow, commissioning editor at Zed Books in London, a publisher where every worker has the same status and earns the same salary.

When I told him we don’t have one (boss) but that he could talk to any one of us, he just couldn’t understand it

Zed publishes academic, left-wing books and the company structure is part of that ethos. No one person is ultimately in charge even if people volunteer to take responsibility for particular areas.

Who’s in charge?

While ditching managers entirely may sound like heaven for some stressed-out workers there are drawbacks. At Zed, decisions are made by every member of the 12-person team, which Barlow says can lead to “epic meetings” but “as long as we have an agenda and aims and we stick to those they can be really productive”. And yes, that means they do thrash things out ‘til the bitter end.

And yes, that means they do thrash things out until the bitter end

While there’s a growing trend toward flatter organisations – which means fewer middle managers and therefore fewer people to report to – Zed is one of only a handful of firms with no captain at the helm.

Barlow doesn’t feel this makes it less efficient. “We don’t have to refer up the chain of command, which in other organisations can mean decisions take ages,” he says.

In his former job, he felt the hierarchy meant he wasn’t able to demonstrate his skills and judgement as openly. “Even when I could predict that there could be problems with something, I would be pre-empting what my boss wanted rather than doing what I thought to be the right thing,” he says.

Deborah Ancona, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Leadership Center, says this is part of a bigger global trend. Many firms “are trying to shed their bureaucratic chains and become more agile,” taking away levels of hierarchy, Ancona says. On top of that more decision making is being given to teams, job descriptions are getting looser, she says. 

Staff business cards don’t even have job titles, describing everyone as an associate

So can this system ever work beyond a tiny company?

Gore, a long-established US manufacturing company, perhaps most famous for creating GoreTex, still has a CEO but uses a much flatter structure than many organisations of similar size. Its 10,000 or so workers are known as “associates” and organised in groups with a small number of leaders — what the firm describes as a “lattice”. Staff business cards don’t even have job titles, describing everyone as an associate.

If things need to change you do feel that you can contribute to that

Henri Bryan, marketing and communications associate at Gore says she “would be lying” to say it’s a perfect set up all of the time but has thrived in the flatter world of Gore.

“I enjoy the buzz, I enjoy the things I work on. Lots of us are a bit like that. I think that the type of organisation (Gore) is, is a significant reason I enjoy my job,” Bryan says. “If things need to change you do feel that you can contribute to that.”

If you don’t do what you commit to do, your team will tell you that you’ve let them down

Bryan says the structure has broken down traditional boundaries between managers and non-managers.  She says one of the unique things about working at Gore is that “if you don’t do what you commit to do, your team will tell you that you’ve let them down.”

The upside

The egalitarian approach is also cheaper. Fewer managers mean fewer fat cat managerial salaries or company cars to pay for. But opinion is split over whether or not equal pay across an organisation makes for greater productivity; some studies claim it does have a positive effect.

We’re not ok with this culture where people are just hired to 'watch' other people doing the job.

Digital marketing firm Niswey, based in Delhi, India, switched to a flatter structure for its 12 full-time and 75 part-time staff back in 2014. Co-founder Abhinav Sahai says it came from a need to be more efficient. “We were getting into a roadblock of managers, we’re not ok with this culture where people are just hired to watch other people doing the job. We started to see that inefficiencies were creeping in.”

Niswey consulted extensively with its staff before making the change which Sahai says is working.

He says since the change the company no longer use recruiters as they “get 5 applications a day” from job seekers. “In most cases they increase their chances of being hired because they’ve already shown they’re the right of people for the company.”

Among the other advantages of creating loose corporate structures is the ability to spur innovation by taking advantage of the collective intelligence of the staff rather than relying solely on top management, MIT’s Ancona says. “Top management is still important, but these firms are trying to have entrepreneurial leadership at all levels.”

The disadvantages

Still, the flat-hierarchy model clearly doesn’t work for everyone. There were a number of firms that BBC Capital looked at who had adopted then rejected the flat model. Tech firm GitHub was one of them, it reinstated middle management in 2014 after two years as a flat company.

We can pretend we don’t have hierarchies but if we don’t have shared values, then the only way to resolve the status desire is by politics

“As a company grows, it’s difficult to maintain a completely flat structure,” company spokesperson Nicole Numrich told BBC Capital. “We realised that to better support our users, as well as the development of our employees, we needed to add some structure to our management approach. As a result, our teams at GitHub are stronger and more productive”.

Randall Peterson from the London Business School says in the absence of hierarchy how do you tackle things like conflict?  Peterson says you can pretend you don’t have hierarchies but “if we don’t have shared values, then the only way to resolve the status desire is by politics. It becomes like high school in the worst sense of that description.”

There are also other drawbacks, according to Peter Gahan at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “[Flat hierarchies] obviously have benefits around adaptability but people can get lost and be less accountable for what they deliver,” Gahan says. “Some individuals might find that looser arrangements are more difficult to manage on a day-to-day basis. If you’ve got a flat hierarchy, there’s often no clear pathway for development and building on your strengths.”

Peterson at the London Business School warns that everyone ends up being clones of each other that can also be bad for business. “Danger can be created with an overly-homogeneous organisation where everybody thinks alike and acts alike and perhaps looks alike,” he warns. “You have to actively seek out difference to guard against this.”

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