Managers have always been a critical piece of nearly every business process, employee touchpoint, and team success. But the pandemic placed them under enormous strain as the scope of their responsibilities evolved in a time of widespread burnout, uncertainty, and upheaval. While these changes began nearly three years ago, this year could mark a breaking point as companies are forced to make tough decisions in response to market uncertainty and managers are tasked with delivering and navigating those decisions with their teams. And HR leaders are recognizing the importance of manager support in the months ahead: Lattice’s annual State of People Strategy report found that manager training was a top priority for People teams, ranking #3 overall.
Leader burnout is real, and it’s never been more important for companies to support their management level appropriately. Proactive teams will focus on training and systems: Putting professional growth at the top of the list alongside effective performance systems that align with business goals that will help managers focus on their teams during this critical time. Here are some ideas for implementing best practices for managers in today’s workplace climate:
Acknowledge a change in expectations
To believe that your team can revert back to functioning exactly as it did before the pandemic reshaped the workforce is, at best, naive. At worst, this expectation will cost you dearly in terms of attracting and retaining talent that is most likely looking for something very different from an organization than they were several years ago..
COVID-19 changed the way we work in thousands of ways, but there are two in particular that had an especially significant impact on managers. First, managers were given more insight than ever before into their team members’ personal lives as the barriers between life inside and outside the office broke down. Previously unseen or unspoken personal challenges employees were dealing with – such as caregiving responsibilities or chronic illnesses – were thrust into the professional sphere. Roommates, partners and children regularly appeared in Zoom backgrounds. ‘Working hours’ lost meaning as schools, gyms, and restaurants shut down. For managers, this meant the traditional ‘command and control’ way of operating (e.g. expecting employees in seats from 9-5) became irrelevant.
Second, this period of time also saw social justice movements sweep the US and the world– and a combination of factors, including changing workforce demographics and an ongoing reassessment of the employer/employee relationship, meant that employees had higher-than-ever expectations of their employers to take action. And when companies take a stance on something that can be very emotionally or politically charged – or decide not to do so – communicating around those decisions, and managing employee responses, often fell on managers to communicate and navigate.
Provide retraining and support where necessary
The shifts I outline above go a long way towards demonstrating just how far managing talent today has moved beyond simply monitoring to ensure that employees are at their desks on time, or hitting certain metrics. These days, managers are asked to be a coach, an advocate, a career advisor, and sometimes, simply an empathetic listener. Yet rarely do organizations match these new expectations with the tools, resources, and training necessary for managers to successfully navigate them. Here, frequent and open conversations between both executives and managers, and managers and their teams, are crucial. Understand where the gaps in understanding and skills are, and how you can best address them.
A digital-first workforce makes these conversations even more important—but also more challenging. And this is where having data on your people – and the tools to leverage it properly – can make a massive difference. Listening tools like engagement and pulse surveys can help managers and teams better understand employee sentiment and challenges; giving employees and their managers clear channels to share and access feedback will provide clarity around performance and growth. Your managers will be armed with the information they need to be an effective coach, because they will have a better understanding of where their employees stand and where they want to go.
Enable managers to coach employees
The trends I point out at the top of the piece are, on the whole, shifting managers in a positive direction, even as they create new challenges for managers and People teams alike. The reality is that successful management is all about the manager-as-coach mentality.
Today’s workforce is dealing with complex issues, not only in navigating things like hybrid work, burnout, and social unrest. Meanwhile, companies are hiring people all over the world, bringing different cultures and time zones into the mix. What’s more, employee expectations have evolved – they are looking to their employers, and their managers, for more growth and development, often personal and professional, than ever before.
All of these things make operating in a command and control capacity ineffective. This style may have worked in the past, when often the only metric that mattered was employee output and productivity. That approach won’t cut it today – and won’t help your business to thrive, either.
When managers are able to take a step back from a day-to-day focus on outputs and deliverables, they can unlock some of the true higher-level metrics that demonstrate the full impact an employee can have. Coaching is about active listening as well as helping to guide and advise, and in this model, managers can work together with employees to set goals that have a true impact on the business.
This overhaul of the “old model” won’t work without proper support for managers. A coaching relationship means going back to foundational basics in terms of how to build strong relationships: A critical skillset that always starts with listening, then moves toward asking really good questions and helping employees uncover their strengths, and finally evolves to helping an employee match their work to their strengths and removing obstacles. Take a hard look at the learning and development opportunities you’re offering your managers. Are they going to be able to leverage them to build these ‘soft’ but vital skills?
Ensure managers have proper tools for goal setting and tracking
It’s not just individual employees who want growth. Great managers and people leaders want their teams to succeed and grow, too. Feedback, as I touched on above, is a huge piece of this, but so is ensuring managers have the proper digital tools for helping their team members succeed by setting and tracking goals. Think beyond day-to-day or even quarterly goals here: Consider implementing IDPs, or individual development plans, for all employees. Giving employees a structure to follow and the impetus to set longer-term goals tied to their desired career paths and learning opportunities, will help to enable a collaborative, focused approach to growth between employees and their managers throughout the year.
Of course, providing the right tools is not only about giving managers and their employees a place to track growth. Companies going above and beyond are committed to employees’ professional and personal growth. What can you offer to managers and, in turn, their teams, which give them optionality in how they want to learn and grow? Aside from tools that allow managers to effectively, for example, have one-on-ones and project manage, I’d encourage bringing in tools like Udemy or WorkRamp to put learning opportunities at individuals’ fingertips. At the end of the day our job as leaders is to make sure people have access to the learning opportunities and content they need to really help them engage in their work.
To state the obvious, the middle manager’s job has only become more complex, and therefore more challenging, over the last few years. And as a result, managers need much more support and effort from their organizations to succeed in their roles. A great manager can be a powerful tie between an individual employee and the broader business; the driving force behind employees who want to do their best work. The companies who best understand the importance of this connection, and provide these managers with the support they need, will be ahead of the game heading into a new year.