Stuck in the Middle: The Challenge of Managing a Hybrid Workforce
Once an anomaly, the hybrid work model took off during the latter stages of the pandemic. Many companies wanting to mitigate health risks tested the format as they began bringing their temporarily remote staff back on-site. The solution worked. People felt safer splitting their time between home and a less crowded office instead of everyone working under one roof simultaneously.
Employees also grew accustomed to the flexibility hybrid work provided and wanted to retain this benefit as COVID began to recede. Many felt so strongly about the issue that they vowed to leave their jobs if required to return to a rigid on-site schedule.
As a result, this unconventional work format remains a popular choice for organizations trying to counter the Great Resignation. CEOs signed off on a hybrid workforce to attract and keep top talent and pocket some overhead savings. And employees embraced their newfound flexibility, which allowed them to maintain a better work-life balance.
While it seems like a win-win proposition, adopting a hybrid workforce doesn’t benefit everyone. It requires middle managers to continue delivering results to the C suite while navigating new complexities of how, when, and where their staff performs their jobs. The perfect solution for top executives and the rank and file has become a major stressor for managers trying to accommodate both contingencies.
The Middle Manager’s Blues
Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, noted in a BBC article that middle management has traditionally been a hard role:
“The name gives it all away: middle managers are caught in the middle; they have to deal with issues up and down an organization.”
The ensuing tension takes a toll. For example, Harvard Business Review (HBR) research in 2014 showed that this group’s engagement and commitment scores were in the bottom 5 percent of all employees.
In addition to being caught between top leaders and direct reports, many managers struggle because they’re ill-equipped for their roles. For example, they’re frequently promoted to their positions as a reward for job performance or company loyalty. But they’re often tapped for these jobs without sufficient management training.
When the pandemic roared in, mid-level managers faced even steeper hurdles. In addition to their ongoing challenges, they suddenly had to navigate working with remote team members and handle their emotional responses to the crisis.
As the post-pandemic work world reconfigures, middle managers are engaged in a new learning curve with hybrid teams. Rousseau explains:
“Flexible working requires a shift in the behaviors, processes, and systems that enable managers to build connections, assess work and monitor the circumstances of staff. 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.”
When the pandemic suddenly thrust middle managers into a remote work mode, they coped with the understanding that the situation was temporary. But today’s hybrid work model is no longer a short-term solution. And the new normal is demanding more from managers than ever before.
How CEOs Can Help Managers Thrive
Company leaders need to set the stage for their middle managers to flourish, and they can accomplish this in three important ways.
First, CEOs should create an organizational culture grounded in positive accountability that promotes trust and motivates high standards. This kind of environment heightens success for any workforce and is critical for managing virtual, cross-functional, or co-located teams.
It’s also vital for top executives to maintain open lines of communication with their managers so that they feel heard and appreciated. This level of support and connection will set the standard for how managers treat their team members.
In addition, it’s vital for company leaders to incorporate effective management training programs to position people in supervisory roles for success. When managers have the opportunity to build up the soft skills needed to perform their responsibilities capably, they can direct teams more confidently. And they’ll be better equipped to tackle the additional challenges of a hybrid work format.
The Manager’s Role
Mastering soft skills like communication, setting expectations, and building relationships help managers establish mutual trust with their team members. This confidence is especially vital when people aren’t regularly interacting in person.
It wasn’t that long ago that many people in supervisory positions “managed by walking around.” This hands-on approach allowed them to see and hear their people working, which assured them of productivity.
The shift to hybrid teams requires managers to trust their people to perform and assess outcomes instead of perceived effort. However, that doesn’t mean they should simply issue directives and wait for results.
Instead, they should provide clear guidelines and make sure everyone has access to what they need to succeed. And they must develop steady lines of communication and support to make this system work.
Gallup specialists take this concept further and suggest managers frequently gather their team members’ input by asking what’s working, what’s not, and what’s most effective for them. They offer the following constructive dialogue prompts:
- Describe the work you do that can be done independently.
- Describe the work you do that is better when we work together.
- What happens when we are in person together that doesn't when we work from home?
- Describe the times when our team works best with other teams.
- Describe the times when you feel connected to our team's culture.
- How do we build some predictability in our work schedules so in-person time is maximized?
- Describe the times when we have created exceptional value for our customers.
Gallup advises tracking how their employees’ answers to these questions change with time and adjusting strategies accordingly. This information will help managers address their hybrid team members’ challenges and maximize the opportunities this work format provides.
Ironically, managers of hybrid teams who see less of their people must be more tuned in to them than those who only supervise employees on-site. To ensure that direct reports hit their goals, hybrid team managers should hone their emotional intelligence to discern their needs and exercise empathy to support them.
Whether working with their teams in person, virtually, or a mixture of both, managers’ primary role is to bring out the best in their people. Their approach should include mentoring, removing roadblocks, and nurturing connections to help their team members grow and collaborate at a high level.
Visit CultureWise.com to learn more about structuring organizational culture to maximize the effectiveness of managers and their remote, on-site, or hybrid teams.