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How flexibility made managers miserable

December 10, 2022
Borderless Leadership

Vlada Randjelovic says his life at a Belgrade-based IT company became much harder when the firm introduced hybrid working. Randjelovic managed a sales team of 10 employees, half of whom chose to work in the office, while the other half worked from home. “I ended up having two worlds: one that existed in the office, the other remote,” he explains, “and they would only ever connect over Zoom meetings. I had to suddenly manage two separate teams doing the same work.”

As he implemented the day-to-day running of the new working model, Randjelovic had to address issues as they arose, both from those above him and those reporting to him. “The hardest aspect of middle management is that everything has to go through you,” he says. “Top management would bring issues to middle management in coming up with a flexible solution. Hybrid was chosen, but it was much easier to say than to do; it came down to middle managers to solve challenges on a daily basis.”

Part of the problem, he says, was that employee expectations became radically different. “People fundamentally changed following the pandemic. Employees wanted more in terms of salary, flexibility and freedom to work how they want. They became more stressed and sensitive to company changes.”

Plus, he says, leading hybrid teams through a fundamental shift in how, when and where employees did their jobs proved to be a tremendous challenge. “You had a style of communication that needed to change overnight as people worked flexibly,” he says. “You had to re-think recruiting processes: hiring a worker that you might never meet in person. You had to accept that a fully remote team would naturally build its own workplace culture. Alongside that, everything sped up and intensified: you had less time to learn or make mistakes. It became a recipe for stress, overwork and burnout.”

Many managers are indeed struggling in the new work world. In an October 2022 survey of 10,766 knowledge workers by US think-tank Future Forum, executives reported 40% more work-related stress and anxiety, 20% worse work-life balance and 15% less job satisfaction in the past year. This trend was particularly pronounced among middle managers, with those at large organisations showing the lowest scores for work-life balance, alongside the highest levels of stress and anxiety.

These figures suggest that many bosses are having a hard time dealing with shifting employee expectations and working patterns. While employees have overwhelmingly relished greater autonomy over workdays and working models, managers have struggled to adapt as they lead teams through an unprecedented workplace transition.

‘Stuck in the middle’

Within an organisation, middle managers typically sit between an organisation’s executives and its employees. Even before the pandemic, this could be a difficult position to be in: they historically rank among the least happy in the workforce.

“The name gives it away: middle managers are caught in the middle, they have to deal with issues up and down an organisation,” says Denise Rousseau, professor of organisational behaviour and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, based in Pittsburgh, US. “It’s traditionally been a hard role – they have to act upon conflicting feedback that comes from employees and senior leaders.”

When the pandemic hit, middle managers’ jobs became harder: they not only had to deal with the emotional impact on their teams – they also had to find ways of enabling remote work virtually overnight. “The processes in which people had communicated, coordinated and shared information in the workplace for decades were suddenly overhauled, and left for managers to figure out,” says Rousseau.

As the pandemic has waned, middle managers have faced ongoing pressures as workplaces pivot their operations. It’s these leaders who executives ask to implement unpopular return-to-office mandates or hybrid-working policies. In many cases, managers are caught between two sides pulling in opposite directions: while many workers want to hold on to their autonomous set-ups, some bosses have pushed for an office return. “They can end up caught in the middle, having to balance the uncertainty of what executives say about their working models against the clamour among employees for flexible working,” says Helen Kupp, senior director at Future Forum, based in California.

Middle managers can also find they struggle to lead flexible teams, says Rousseau; the methods they used before are no longer available to them. “Flexible working requires a shift in the behaviours, processes and systems that enable managers to build connections, assess work and monitor the circumstances of staff,” she adds. “But the ways in which managers have been trained to offer support and evaluate work require them to have eyes on the person and the information being right in front of them.”

Compared to in-office settings, engaging and leading teams through a screen can be much harder, says Rousseau. “Managing often requires thinking about how the other person is thinking – it’s predicated on assumptions made of that person having worked with them before. But that needs updating amid flexible working, and a culture of trust. And trust takes longer to build among distributed teams in which colleagues never meet in person.”

All this means that much more is being demanded of middle managers now than before the pandemic. “A manager before Covid-19 compared to today is completely different,” says Randjelovic.

Why they’re struggling to cope

Many middle managers may be unprepared for the new challenges they’re facing. Although managers are in theory promoted based on their leadership strengths, many are actually thrust into senior positions as a reward for perceived company loyalty or day-to-day job skills.

“In reality, managers are often in their role because of hard skills,” says Kupp. “But to be a good manager, especially with flexible working, requires a focus on softer skills: building connections, culture and belonging among distributed teams.”

Right now, some managers are experiencing a crash course in soft skills, while also having to tackle their daily workloads. “Hybrid working challenges you on a personal level as a worker, and then also on a managerial level,” says Randjelovic. “You need to update your company culture, have online routines set up for your team, and place your trust in them on a completely new level.”

Plus, while executives continue to fine-tune their hybrid set-ups, middle managers may find themselves without much-needed organisational support in place. “Managers were often under-supported in their role even before the pandemic,” says Kupp. “Flexible working has deepened the issues that make the transition to management difficult: it requires more help, training and the redefining of what it means to be a successful manager.”

Forced to deal with evolving policies and norms, often without organisational help, it’s no wonder many managers are feeling stressed and unhappy. “They should be the lynchpins in making flexible work successful, but they’re instead stuck in a tug-of-war between what executives and employees want from flexible working,” says Kupp.

Being a middle manager means being the middleman: everyone’s problems become yours – Vlada Randjelovic
Teuila Hanson, chief people officer at LinkedIn, based in San Francisco, says that managers who find themselves in firms still clinging on to presenteeism are more likely to struggle leading hybrid teams. “When the job is more about monitoring who’s going into the office or not, rather than conversations around trust, that becomes harder for managers.”

The longer-term picture

While difficulties managing distributed and remote teams remain, remote and hybrid working aren’t going away. This means companies will need to find a way to help miserable or stressed middle managers.

Hanson believes that managers will need fresh training if they’re to thrive leading flexible teams. “There previously weren’t many courses on managing hybrid teams: knowing which conversations to have in terms of working in person, or knowing how to manage someone you’ll never meet in real life. It’s not easy: if you’re a manager today compared to 2019, absolutely your job is more challenging.”

Kupp predicts, however, that the tug-of-war between employers and employees over flexibility will gradually ease, potentially lightening the load on middle managers. Market demand means flexible working will be here to stay, she says, so employers will ultimately have to cede ground. “We know that employees want flexibility and that they’re willing to walk if their current job doesn’t provide it. So, what we’re currently seeing are likely short-term growth pains.”

Randjelovic, meanwhile, believes that managing flexible teams will become more enjoyable once formal systems are more widely adopted. “When the pandemic first hit, and everything turned online, managers believed that company culture and processes didn’t need to change – we just needed online alternatives for everything. I think it’s only now that businesses have accepted they need to adapt, rather than find quick fixes.”

He now works as a business consultant for an HR firm, after leaving management for a fresh challenge. He hasn’t ruled out managing again in the future, however; for all its challenges, leading a hybrid team through the pandemic gave him skills he’s been able to take forward. “Being a middle manager means being the middleman: everyone’s problems become yours,” he says. “But it’s not a challenge to run away from – I’ve personally made big improvements in my online and in-person communication.”

By Alex Christian


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