Middle Managers need help (in the new world of work)

September 28 2022

The shift to remote work is particularly impacting on middle managers in all larger organisations. We should address this now. Middle managers play a vital role, and it’s just not on to let the role – or the incumbents – languish, when we actually can meet the challenge.

Why are these roles so important?

Middle management roles are critical positions in all mid to large organisations; indeed, the impact of middle managers on business success can be ‘make or break’:

  • Middle managers are the link between strategy and implementation, between executive and frontline staff.
  • With many organisations desperate for talent, it’s notable that people largely don’t leave organisations; they leave ineffective managers, and our organisations are feeling the pinch and can’t afford a preventable factor resulting in even more staff departures.

The MM role has become less clear and more demanding

In the days of highly structured organisational hierarchies, the middle manager (MM) role was clear enough, though not without its challenges.

Now, the MM role is becoming less clear, and more demanding.

A global (US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia) survey of knowledge workers demonstrated this.

Respondents (9500 total) included 3500 working remotely, among them middle and senior managers. Researchers compared the experience of MMs (managing 1-6 people) to senior execs (managing at least 15 people), and found that under new remote arrangements, MMs:

  • were 46% less satisfied with their jobs than senior execs.
  • had struggled more than twice as much in maintaining a sense of belonging.
  • felt more stressed and less productive.

Diving deeper, it was apparent that this was because the (always demanding) role was now becoming even harder, largely because of several changes under remote work arrangements.

Management style and the use of tech in communication also impacted on team performance and direction. Teams that leveraged modern technologies to share content openly weren’t struggling as much with “What is my team doing?”. Teams where managers used meetings as communication platforms reported lower scores for productivity and sense of belonging. And, remote workers were more concerned (almost half) than onsite workers (37%) with being brought into needless meetings. I can hear that resonating!

Three reasons the MM role is changing permanently

The traditional MM role has been significantly focussed on being that ‘bridge’ (exec to frontline), as well as monitoring team / individual performance and productivity.

But with organisations shifting toward more distributed, asynchronous workforces, it’s likely that these traditional aspects of the role are becoming increasingly redundant. The functions of monitoring productivity and optimising individual performance are being partly covered in other ways, largely related to 3 factors:

1. The 9-to-5 model is increasingly obsolete.

Flexible, asynchronous work arrangements are now being permanently established, and they can drive better work-life balance, lower stress, and higher productivity when well done. In these models, MMs still play an essential role in nurturing talent and forging team connection:

  • But “management by walking around” is not as relevant as under centralised workplace arrangements.
  • Some or all members of many teams are not in a workplace at one time to be subject to supervision and leadership.
  • MMs now must build team norms and implement workflows that don’t depend on synchronous, in-person communication.

Many organisations are underprepared to support this in terms of skills, tools and systems.

2. Digital infrastructure is supplementing / replacing the physical office.

The middle manager role has been built around supporting communication and collaboration for their co-located teams, and monitoring team and individual performance.

With communication moving from in-person to digital, it’s easier to automate, or at least ‘platform-ise’, the documentation and sharing of key information and decisions. Look at the growth of collaboration tools in the last few years!

While this can increase transparency, it eliminates many information-sharing mechanisms that middle managers were responsible for. So, what do they do???

3. Measuring output becomes easier, but building shared purpose is harder.

The shift to digital tools has also simplified and enhanced processes around tracking and measuring output (impacting on another traditional MM function).

But a distributed workforce model also adds new challenges to essential team leadership functions like building social ties and aligning team members around mission and vision. The ability to communicate clearly and unite teams remotely has become more critical for MMs.

And “command and control” management is now more irrelevant and ineffective than ever.

MM in the future

Instead of being a conduit for routing information between different groups and up and down an organisational hierarchy, middle managers of the future will be more focussed on:

  • Building teams using hybrid and blended communication methods.
  • Developing talent using tools and personalised communication.
  • Leveraging digital tools optimised for enabling (and tracking) remote and hybrid workforces.

In addition, organisational systems have to change. Organisations must quickly:

  • Redesign their MM roles.
  • Rethink traditional MM career paths.
  • Provide development paths for more individual contributors to advance without taking on people-management responsibilities.
  • Invest in process and collaboration tools.
  • Cut purposeless / unproductive meetings.
  • Over-communicate regarding decisions / support transparency.
  • Build what have always been seen as ‘soft skills’ / train leaders for empathy and to be leaders of inclusive teams.

Investing in middle managers is critical

Organisations and leaders must help managers do their job, connect with their teams and one another, and grow their career.

Middle management roles must shift further away from ‘attendance monitor / information router’ to being coaches and facilitators, creating momentum toward objectives, and leveraging technology to share knowledge and status updates. As the landscape rapidly shifts, the role of managers will be flexible and fluid. This will positively impact on innovation, agility, and talent retention.

It’s time to embed temporary changes

The last three years have been tough. It’s now time for leaders to make profound, positive and lasting changes to organisational models. New ways of working can be the basis of a successful long-term design. Leaders need to reflect, learn, and reimagine the shape of working arrangements.

  • This requires new styles of leadership, and new cultures and norms.
  • It will enable better businesses, better work, and better lives.

In the long run, the working world will be more welcoming, inclusive, creative and productive if we get these things underway now.

Need help with this?  Please get in touch today.