Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
November 4, 2022 12:56 AM EDT

Middle managers are exhausted. They’ve lately been tasked with enforcing return-to-office plans, ramping up productivity in the face of a faltering economy, responding to layoff anxiety among their teams, communicating company stances on social and political issues, shouldering greater responsibility for the wellbeing of their teams, and fielding numerous other complexities. In Future Forum’s latest pulse report, some 43% of managers described themselves as burned out, more than both individual contributors and more senior leaders.

To understand the evolving pressures on middle managers and how workplaces can mitigate them, we reached out to Cara Allamano, chief people officer at the people-management software company Lattice. Here are excerpts of our conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity:

What can organizations be doing right now to set their managers up for success?

One thing I’m seeing come up more and more is the need to be able to identify areas of risk for employees who might be having some challenges. Because the manager’s role has gotten so broad, those challenges are as much in the realms of mental health and relationships among coworkers and the employee’s relationship with the vision, mission, values of an organization as they are the tactical day-to-day work. So having broader discussions and educating our leaders on how to identify some of those risks as they arise. Supporting those leaders from the organization’s standpoint, letting them know, ‘In this kind of scenario, this is what your people partner can do to help. This is what your leaders are here to do.’ Building that infrastructure.

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Recent research from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that 85% of leaders struggle to know when their employees are being productive. How can workplaces help managers get past so-called “productivity paranoia”?

It’s the back-to-basics scenario of what we know about really good management: If you have clear goals and you’ve set clear priorities and you’re measuring those, it’s not about how much time people have in their seat. It’s about what their deliverables are against goals. So organizations should make sure they’re aligned from top to bottom with business goals, and everybody has their own set of goals that tie to the mission of the organization as well as the business outcomes that the org wants. It’s the responsibility of every organization to train their managers on the kind of goal-setting that particular organization participates in.

And then as an organization, have really open conversations about achievement toward those goals. You’ve got to be transparent about how your organization is tracking toward those things. And I think if managers get really comfortable with the idea of goals and then the measurement against goals, it makes everybody’s life easier because it’s a very tangible process for people to participate in. There are very few surprises when you are very clearly measuring against the outcomes that you want.

How can they maintain a sense of autonomy while acting as a conduit between employees and leadership, especially right now as return-to-office power struggles play out at many organizations?

What’s really important on the manager’s side is to make sure that you’re articulating your needs as well. Some of that is a new skill that we’re having to learn: What is the best way to communicate in this new environment, whether hybrid or virtual or even back to the office? You have to formalize some of these more informal communication channels. You need to be really crisp and clear about articulating what the best communication avenues are, since we now have a million, from Slack to email to Zooms to texts.

The one-on-one is an example of that. In the past, we might not have been as structured around one-on-ones, or we might not have been as consistent. In this new world, it’s become the foundational employee experience within organizations. It is the core of what I think good management is, because it’s just you making time to have a one-on-one conversation and address the needs of that person in that moment. It’s something that requires planning and thoughtfulness, and it can be a really powerful lever if you’re leveraging it effectively.

And I’m thinking a lot about the concept of self-engagement these days. How do you give folks optionality in how they want to learn and grow? How do you let them opt into the work style and the work experience that works best for them? For me, that’s bringing in tools like Udemy and WorkRamp and putting things at individuals’ fingertips. Trust the individual to be able to raise their hand and ask for the learning that they need, and make sure they have access to that learning content, to those learning opportunities that really help them engage in the work.

Read a transcript of the full conversation.

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