Span of control: what's the ideal staff to manager ratio?

Published on January 15, 2021 by Gemma Dale
Span of control the ideal manager to staff ratio

Is there an ideal manager to staff ratio? HR expert Gemma Dale explores the staff management concept of having a span of control and considers the factors that affect how many employees a manager can manage effectively.

People often ask how many employees an individual manager can or should manage. This ratio is sometimes referred to as the span of control and it can vary considerably from organisation to organisation, or even from team to team.

The question arises in a HR context too, in the form of how many HR professionals a business needs to support a given number of employees. When seeking an answer to such questions, people usually expect that there is a neat and simple single answer, but unfortunately there is no such thing as the perfect ratio or span of control. Instead, there is only what works for a particular organisation, within their context, culture, and circumstances. Even within one business, the manager to employee ratio can vary considerably.

Learn more: When to hire a HR manager: a guide for employers

Span of control


A span of control is the total number of employees that one manager is responsible for managing. A manager can have a wide span of control, meaning that they manage a large team, or a narrow span of control, where they are perhaps responsible for just one or two individuals. Interest in spans of control dates all the way back to the early management theorists, many of whom were also trying to find that one perfect number, but it is now generally accepted that it doesn’t exist.

The ideal staff to manager ratio?

Some businesses still seek uniformity of approach, with organisational design principles relating to spans of control. They have strict rules about how many employees any manager may have in their reporting structures. However, rather than seeking a ratio or requiring each span to be identical, a more successful (and agile) approach can be to consider each individual situation and what it demands. There are some common factors to consider when determining what a particular employee to manager ratio should be:

1. The type of work being undertaken

When work is routine, repetitive, or straightforward, managers may be able to manage a larger number of team members than when it is complex or highly individual. If you consider that a manager must be able to give meaningful and constructive guidance and feedback to every member of their team, they need a certain amount of capacity – something which can be increased with routine or simple work.

2. Manager experience and competency

Experienced managers may be able to manage more team members than less experienced ones. From performance appraisals to sickness absence, most management roles bring with them a degree of people related administration. Skilled and experienced managers may be able to handle a larger amount of this kind of work. They will typically also be more proficient at those aspects of management like staff engagement, team building and motivation, together allowing for a broader span of control.

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3. The manager’s own role

In some organisations, managers will primarily manage rather than do. The main focus of their role is to lead, coach or supervise others. But in other organisations, managers will have their own operational role to undertake too, and managerial duties are just one part of their portfolio of responsibilities. So when considering an appropriate ratio, it’s important to take into account the other roles and responsibilities of the manager – otherwise there is a risk of imposing too great a workload upon them.

4. Employee experience and competency

Employee competence also plays a role in determining appropriate spans of control. A manager with a team of inexperienced apprentices, for example, may need to spend much of their time providing training, development, or support. The greater the need for direct and close supervision, the smaller the span of control will need to be. In comparison, a manager with a knowledgeable and highly experienced team may be able to let their team largely direct themselves, allowing for them to manage a greater number of employees.

5. Systems and technology

Automation and self-service in technology have reduced the administrative burden on managers in recent years. This may enable some companies to increase the spans of control of their people managers. For instance, staff management software helps managers keep track of employee records and quickly find the information they need, from sickness absences to training and appraisals, reducing time spent on admin and freeing up more time for development and engagement activities.

Keep staff information organised and secure with a cloud-based staff management system

staff management software

Communication tools can also influence the employee to manager ratio. The global pandemic has rapidly increased the use of technology to communicate as well as the use of tools that support asynchronous and flexible working. Communication is a key part of management, but it is no longer necessary to do this face to face all the time. Sophisticated systems may support a wide span of control, but where the organisation has high levels of bureaucracy, that may necessitate a smaller ratio.

Learn more: How employees can stay connected while working from home

There is simply no such thing as best practice when it comes to manager and employee ratios – or even HR ones. It is unlikely that even within one organisation there will be one perfect ratio that will work for all circumstances.

There will be times when a narrow span of control is most suitable, others when a wide one is preferable. What matters most of all is that the organisation’s employees get the amount of supervision and support that they need to do their jobs well, and that managers can lead their teams effectively – whatever their size happens to be.

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Written by Gemma Dale

Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.

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