Reinventing the Manager's Role in the New Workplace Reality
Over the past two years, we've focused our writing on the myriad of challenges and evolving realities facing the “modern workplace” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's clear that no one anticipated not only the duration of the pandemic, but also the effects it would have on both the physical workplace environment itself, as well as — and more importantly — the ways we do work. For those of us involved in the hiring process, there isn’t a candidate who doesn't ask about remote and/or hybrid working situations. For those of us actively hiring, we're faced with the reality that employees are no longer interested in a traditional office environment. Now that companies are developing plans for a return to the office — at least in some capacity — there are new challenges that must be addressed.
Training and Mentoring
Many companies are facing the reality that they have a growing number of employees who have never been in the office. In their minds, they've been able to quickly and successfully pivot and deal with their “office” interactions successfully via computer and absent that in-person experience. This is especially the case for younger/lower-level employees who haven't had any in-person experiences. It's difficult for them to understand the effects of remote working and the absence of actual human interaction when this type of connection has never been the norm.
Transitions are another aspect of this “new norm.”
“Managers and employees — millennials and Gen Zers in particular — change jobs far more often than previous generations ever did. A January 2021 survey of 14,000 consumers in nine countries by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that about 20 percent of workers voluntarily changed employers in 2020, citing desires for such things as job-location, flexibility, and more meaningful work, and more than 25 percent were looking to make a move in 2021. And a Microsoft study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries indicated that 40 percent of them were considering leaving their employers in 2021.” (HBR, November-December 2021)
This current state of flux and change puts even more strains on organizations and their managers. Increasingly, managers must shift from focusing solely on tasks and more immediate interactions to managing as a multifaceted performance coach, leaving a more static environment and moving into a more fluid and far more digitally centered one. Management in 2022 has evolved through four waves since the 1990’s:
- Phase 1: From 1990 to the early 2000s, organizations focused on eliminating bureaucracy and boosting operational efficiencies. Organizational hierarchies became flatter, more processes and functions were outsourced, and managers moved from their traditional role into a “player-coach” role, taking on additional tasks previously handled by staff members. This focus on cost reduction put additional strains on managers and the organization overall.
- Phase 2: Digitization arrived around 2010. This “democratized” access to information and shifted communication patterns, undermining the traditional managerial power structure. CEOs and other senior executives had greater access to communication and information and staff roles evolved as managers no longer were the sole providers of information and answers.
- Phase 3: The third wave came in the mid to late 2010s with what we term "agile movement," where companies focused on shortening timelines and turbocharged the search for innovation. The organization became an internal marketplace communicating with other related or nonrelated entities evolving to the same point. The result of this was the proliferation of project teams and cross-functional facilitation where work was developed and managed on a more as-needed basis. Managers began to lose touch with their direct or indirect reports because employees spent more of their time under rotating supervision and within project management teams. Add to this the fact that candidates could now access career opportunities online, and the full cycle was “flipped” as managers lost much of their ability to act as the major influence on career development and as the ones creating career opportunities for their people.
- Phase 4: The fourth (and current) wave occurred in 2020 with the pandemic. Companies were forced to embrace the reality of a flexible work environment. We all see how this dramatically changed how work gets done. The result has been even more of a burden on managers, who, in a tight yet fluid employment market, are now expected to cultivate empathetic relationships that allow them to engage and retain talent — all in a flexible, hybrid work environment.
“These waves of innovation have changed the role of the manager along three dimensions: power, skills, and structure. In a power shift, managers have to think about making teams successful, not being served by them. In a skills shift, they’re expected to coach performance, not oversee tasks; and in a structural shift, they have to lead in more fluid environments. These changes have empowered employees, which is a good thing. But managers must now focus on coaching, communication, and employee well-being.” (HBR, March, April 2022).
This evolution has dramatically affected the role of the manager. There has been a definite shift from performance management to performance development that reflects the evolving mindset and changing skillset needed to manage in this workplace. Consistent feedback is at the core of this shift. Managers now need to create environments that encourage candid communication and allow for greater inclusivity of opinions at all levels. Managers need to provide frequent and meaningful feedback, but more importantly allow for a greater inclusion of opinions coming from all levels. The more traditional hierarchical structure of management and decision making is part of a larger paradigm shift. Managers need to not only help to develop broader market-relevant skills, but act as more effective career coaches in an environment where career paths are no longer clear or established. Managers must be more mindful of diversity and inclusion as well as manage in an environment of increasing attrition. The role of the manager has always been challenging; however, in today’s organizational reality the responsibilities and skills needed to become truly effective managers is far more complex.
Telstra, a $16 billion Australian telecommunications company, made a bold move towards becoming a more customer-focused and more agile entity by flattening the organization’s hierarchy specifically by reducing the layers of the organization to three clearly set entities. The CEO and CHRO “realized that the restructuring provided a perfect opportunity to redesign the managerial job. This change has been needed for so long. We realized we had to separate work and management and create two distinct roles: leader of people and leader of work. With very few exceptions, this new model applies to the entire organization.” (HBR, March, April 2022).
We found this model to be intriguing and thought provoking. Telstra defines leaders of people as those ensuring employees have the skills and capabilities to meet the current and future needs of the business. These leaders know their people more broadly and with more depth, well beyond their work, and with an ability to understand their career aspirations and needs. These managers are tasked with being thought provacateurs. These leaders manage global employees and own the idea of understanding talent capacity. They're required to understand skill gaps and close them through training and developmental movement while filling organizational gaps through less restrictive hiring. Employees are selected for stretch projects/assignments and managers in this environment are responsible for a greater level of employee engagement, career movement and skill development.
Leaders of work focus on the flow of work and the commercial imperatives of the business. These leaders don't directly manage people or control budgets. They create and execute work plans, and their performance is measured by the clarity of planning, the quality of their estimates, and whether their projects are on time and on budget. They own the work, including project plans and forecast demand for skills. In essence, they bid for employees and are responsible for project deliverables and business outcomes as well as picking and managing teams through influence more than direct reporting relationships.
“You actually get two people out of it who are dedicated to your development. Your leader of people is there to talk to you about your growth, and you get to have some great, powerful conversations about the type of work you want to do and how you get there. Your leader of work is there on a day-to-day basis to provide you direction on the work you need to do and on the business outcomes that we’re trying to deliver.” (HBR, March, April 2022).
What Does All of This Mean?
Obviously not all organizations can adopt the Telstra model, nor is any one model right for all organizations. Telstra has the advantage (and challenge) of being a large organization with 32,000 people; however, its model can provide guidance for many different types of organizations, both large and small. Leaders of people should be managers/leaders who have a more developed empathy, high EQ, and naturally think about what motivates employees. Leaders of work should be managers/leaders who are excellent practitioners of process, workflow, the focus on getting it done! They're successful because they have the work skills. Thinking about this distinction can help leaders identify the people and skills best equipped to manage people and those who are best at managing the work — managers of people vs. managers of process. The difficulty is, of course, finding someone who can do both.
The current workplace environment will remain complex and challenging and will more than ever require decision makers to be even more agile and flexible. The role of the manager and leader, never simple, is now becoming more complex with remote work styles or hybrid environments or a more demanding employee base amid a renewed talent crisis. It’s anybody’s game, but the winner will have a more advanced overall skillset.
Here's to the future and to those who can thrive within a more adventurous environment.
Frederick Lamster is the managing director at ZRG Partners, a progressive midsized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach. Sharon Tunstall is chief human resources officer at Empower Media Agency, an advertising and marketing agency.
Related story: Work Life Post-Pandemic: Thoughts on a New Reality and Hopefully a Return to Some Form of Happiness
Frederick Lamster is the Managing Director at ZRG Partners, a progressive mid-sized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach.
Sharon Tunstall is a Consultant at Connect the Dots, a leadership solutions consulting company.