Even in normal – e.g. pre-Covid - times, some middle managers struggle with various issues related to staff management. The challenge, now, is that they are required to manage people remotely, online, where it can be harder to convey emotions or physical expression than it is in a face-to-face or shared office situations; not only to direct-reporting personnel but also to others in the workforce.
In this session, our panel discussed their experiences and offered recommendations regarding the role of middle managers with respect to remote working during a crisis situation, and how they can be guided and assisted to engage and empower their people, while also using processes and technology to best effect.
Kevin Naylor, Vice President Sales, en world Japan
Kevin Riendeau, Founder and CEO, Anextere, Japan
Misa Yamashita, Independent HR Consultant, former Head of HR, AXA Life Japan
Sachiko Okamoto, Chief Human Resources Officer, Panasonic i-PRO Sensing Solutions
How can we help middle managers improve their ability to manage effectively in remote working situations?
Perhaps more fundamental people management skills are required. These include being concerned for employees’ health and safety, greater involvement from a senior management perspective, and more structure around sharing information and engaging with employees, including checking on their mental and physical health to ensure that they are equipped to handle working remotely.
Middle management is operationally the most important and challenging role in a company. It is literally in the middle between senior managers and staff, and this can be a difficult balancing act.
There are high expectations of middle managers, but some are promoted or appointed to those positions based on work performance measurements. Not all have sufficient skills or experience in people management, but they become people managers, perhaps for the first time in their careers.
Middle manager training and assistance
Middle managers often have difficulty combining people management and project management. It takes a lot of work to train and assist people in adapting to this change.
It is important to understand where they're struggling, what they're struggling with and finally whether the issues are fixable or not. Transitioning to remote working can magnify such issues.
Often, when people get promoted into management roles, they don't get enough real training or sustained training because the reality is, some people get promoted because they're good at their jobs rather than on the basis of management capability or potential. Then, after a few hours of classroom work, they’re expected to go out and be managers. In fact, developing the skills and the habits to be a good manager takes time and investment in coaching people to be better managers.
During a crisis situation like that caused by COVID-19, companies are in a critical situation. They need to drive revenue to keep the company alive, so people need to work harder than ever. However, at the same time, middle manager needs to be sure that his/her people are engaged and that they feel both psychologically and physically safe. No wonder some middle managers feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.
If businesses take care of their people, they will be engaged and they will perform well. This will lead the business to grow. Today, there is a greater focus on connection, as opposed to “driving” people to produce results.
A major effect of the pandemic has been to cut people off from the touchpoints associated with their workplaces. Now, it’s necessary to make smart use of online tools to foster communication and engagement. Therefore, not only middle managers but everybody needs to get better at utilizing online tools and other relevant tools which can facilitate better engagement.
Besides using those tools for official business purposes, there is a place for more casual human interaction via remote communication tools, especially now that opportunities for such contact are fewer or even non-existent. Encouraging people to become more productive is one thing, but meaningful interaction among team members is also vital. A team works on the basis of mutual trust and bonds that develop between people. These bonds become harder to build and maintain when colleagues are not seeing each other day-to-day and sharing those little stories about each other's kids, hobbies, or pets.
There is a need to shift the management style away from directing and toward empowering, encouraging and engaging. Despite assumptions to the contrary, it is possible to have effective connections among people in an online environment.
People, process, technology
Senior managers and executives need to recognize that people, processes and technology can actually enable their business to operate better. Under pressure to produce business results within short time frames, some organizations struggle to demonstrate empathy for their employees, and that may be compounded by the move to a remote working environment.
In a remote working environment, the repercussions can be significant if you do not manage your people well and are not open and transparent about what you're doing. Most people who are underperforming know it, they feel it, and ignoring that fact makes the manager seem absent and uncaring. Even if it's a difficult discussion, such as whether or not the person is in the right role or company, having that discussion upfront shows a caring attitude: What is the actual skill performance issue? What is the motivation issue? Or, what maybe creeping in from the personal side? For middle managers, it can often be easier to avoid those discussions in a remote working environment.
Communication in the remote workspace
Communication is the key, meaning all ways of communicating, such as email, chat, videoconferencing, etc., and managing all of those appropriately to increase engagement. People need to get better at using these tools.
However, many middle managers don’t have much experience in this area, never having actually learned how to work well remotely. This is a skill set that needs to be taught; keeping people ‘in the loop” of the content and intent of messages conveyed in emails. This means making messages informative, meaningful, and actionable
Greetings are important. Starting the day with, “Good morning, how are you doing?” makes a difference. Videoconferencing can replace the old weekly meeting. Perhaps, having one on a Monday morning with a follow- up on a Friday can better tie things together. Ensure that people use their cameras because it’s valuable to see people's faces to understand how they’re feeling.
Managers need to build connections and trust through relating to people, treating them as human beings, not as productivity machines. They must show that management cares. Building connections is fundamental to team management.
Managers now don't have to show that they know everything. They should be more honest in saying, “I don't know”and inviting feedback and discussion on how people want to be managed online.
Managers may feel they have to be that strong leader, but saying “I'm not sure, what do you think?” or “I think that's a great question. How do you prefer to be managed?” and engaging with people on the same level builds trust. That is not just throwing it back to them. It is opening up the discussion to build relationships and a team bond.
In these changing times, it’s important to learn continuously together as a team in the remote working environment. For example, a manager can set up a meeting where the participants don't talk about the business or the work, but rather discuss how they are working: "Okay, under COVID we are working very differently, what's working well, and what's not working?”
The leader’s role is to create a forum for discussion and mutual learning where new ideas are born. This allows the manager to build bonds; working more as a peer rather than under the traditional manager-employee top-down relationship
Establish a 15-minute meeting default format, not an hour or 30 minutes, so that people have time to catch their breath, grab a coffee, visit the restroom, whatever. People get worn out from back-to-back meetings all day. The assumption is that, because a person is working from home, he or she can handle that, but it's not healthy.
Have a regular meeting every morning, like a “stand-up” where everybody logs on just for five or 10 minutes to say: "Okay, this is my plan for the day. This is what went well yesterday. This is what didn't. This is how/when to catch me today." It's not about setting goals or KPIs but just a chance for everybody to touch base and discuss, qualitatively, their plans for the day or anything relevant to the team. This can be book-ended with a brief evening catch-up to see how things have gone to get the “rhythm” and feeling of the day’s activities. Managers should separate formal business topics like, "Are you hitting your targets?” from these casual catch-ups.
Companies too often keep their middle managers separate from each other, and senior managers deal with them individually. However, it’s a good idea to get them together periodically to discuss what's working, what's not, and how they can support each other. You can build a team among middle managers to help them help each other.
You can also consider instituting unofficial communication opportunities, such as Zoom dinners or drinks. Start with a five-minute casual chat: “How was your weekend?”“How's your family?’ “Did you go to view the cherry blossoms?”Such brief conversations can help make participants feel more comfortable about speaking up.
Hold online welcome parties for new staff members and use breakout sessions in Zoom. Start by briefly introducing the new person, then split people into small groups and circulate every 15 minutes. The newcomer gets to talk to everyone in a small group setting, and it's really effective for helping a new staff member fit in.
To create better engagement, double the time spent with staff, but quadruple the number of interactions. For example, instead of a one-hour weekly catch-up, if you're online, double that to two hours’ worth of time per week, but break it into four interactions.
Frequent connections are a reasonable substitute for long dinners, lunches and/or conversations over drinks. In the remote environment, it’s key to make contact more often but for less time, in order to build those connections, because people get worn out staring at a screen for an hour or more.
Consider how to handle global calls. People’s time needs to be balanced as some of them could have people working all the way from 9.00 a.m. to 10.00 or 11.00 p.m. on a daily basis if they have spanning vast time zones. Managing this time balance is huge, and it's very important within a remote environment. Middle managers may need to step in to help their staff manage expectations of colleagues overseas who do not consider the time differences.
For people with no previous experience, remote working can cause a lot of stress and other issues. It’s crucial to help people manage their working conditions and their time so that they can do their work and feel good about it. They need to rest and recharge to avoid the disengagement and fatigue that can set in from overworking in this environment.
Because middle managers have a pivotal role to play in the remote working environment, it is vital that they be equipped, encouraged, assisted to engage with their people and empower them to contribute effectively to business operations and results.