The problem with hybrid working? Your managers

5 minute read
We all know remote and hybrid workers are just as productive, if not more so, than in-office workers, right? Well, while the research backs this up it appears your line managers disagree – and this could lead to reduced fairness at a time when equity is high on the HR agenda
Sian Harrington

Hybrid work and line managers

The data is depressing, says Brian Kropp, group VP and chief of HR research at Gartner. Research may say otherwise, but managers are dramatically more likely to say employees who work on-site are higher performers (64% saying this). And they are more likely to promote people who come into the office (76%).

Research by the Centre for Transformative Work Design, as reported in HBR backs up this managerial bias. Thirty-eight percent of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office, with 22% being unsure. And, controlling for a range of other factors, men were more likely to have negative attitudes to remote working and to mistrust their own employees’ competence. For example, whereas 15% of female managers reported that they lacked “confidence in their employees’ work skills in the past week,” for male managers, 36% percent had little trust in their employees’ skills.

Meanwhile some 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers in the study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. Twenty-three percent of managers disagreed with the statement “I am confident I can manage a team of remote workers” and another 16% were unsure about this ability. Managers who defined themselves as in non-managerial/non-professional roles (such as technical or administrative roles), had lower self-efficacy for managing remote workers, more negative attitudes and greater mistrust. More than half (53%) of managers from non-managerial/non-professional roles agreed that “the performance of remote workers is usually lower than those of people who work in an office/work setting,” compared to 24% of those in managerial/professional roles.

Younger managers were also more likely to lack self-efficacy for leading remote workers. Some 25% percent of managers under 30 years of age did not feel they could coordinate a team of remote workers effectively, whereas only 12% of managers over 30 years of age had this lack of self-confidence.

Line managers are the biggest challenge when it comes to hybrid work. Yordi Smit, sales manager for spacehuntr, told TechRepublic that part of the resistance to remote work is that old habits die hard. “Managers tend to reflect themselves onto their team and if a manager doesn’t like working remotely, she or he will likely be less open to having their teams out of sight,” he says. 

“Your managers may be struggling to believe people are as productive at home as they are at the office,” agrees Hedda Bird, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of new book The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your people. “As a client asked me – have we all forgotten that many people used to work from home one or two days a week simply to ‘get stuff done’ because there was no time to work when in the office? Pre-Covid, the problem at the office was that there were too many meetings and home offered a respite. The effect of moving wholesale to working from home is that, even at home, you can be in meetings all day. So, the challenge for the manager is, how do we stop everyone being in meetings all day and allow them some time to get some work done? Ironically, the answer is to trust them more and reduce the need for ‘virtual catch-up meetings’ with all and sundry. This saved time can be used for getting things done.”

The problem with all this is threefold. Firstly, it is just unfair. Secondly, it is likely to result in bad outcomes for the organisation as managers reward people who may not be the best contributors to performance. And thirdly, it is likely to impact gender equity. For, as Gartner’s research finds, more women than men want to work from home. “If we do nothing then gender equity will get worse when itcomes to the leadership ranks,” says Kropp.

New ways of working and managers

So what can HR leaders do to mitigate against this? The first thing, says Gartner senior VP Jaime Roca, is to recognise that there are three tectonic shifts impacting managers: the post pandemic work realities such as the move to hybrid; the proliferation of skills (the number of skills required by role is expected to increase to 22 by next year, while 41% of employees don’t have the skills needed for current and future jobs); and new employee values, whereby people are expecting employers to no longer view them as workers but as whole people (88% of employees say their organisation does not provide them with a human value proposition).

“Managers are the centre of all this, but struggling,” says Roca. “They are working longer hours, have increased roles, more check-ins with direct reports, higher fatigue and attrition in their teams, more personal stress and an increased number of direct reports.”

“Managers are definitely overwhelmed with change at the moment,” agrees Bird. “For example, managers in higher education are facing a perfect storm of having to work out what education they can deliver in person, what should remain virtual, how they will manage practical subjects safely, how to cope with rising costs without rising income, the loss of income from international students and a workforce expressing frustration at the amount of change happening in such a short space of time.  It is hard in these circumstances to focus on building relationships and attending to colleague wellbeing.  And yet… without strong relationships and reasonable levels of wellbeing, any organisation is going to struggle to cope with change.”

And we know, line managers are the most important factor in employee wellbeing. Speaking at an event organised by executive search and talent consulting firm Armstrong Craven, professor of organisational psychology & health at Manchester Business School Cary Cooper was unequivocal about this. “The evidence is clear. The person that causes you the most stress at work is your line manager. There is no question about it – the evidence is overwhelming. If you ask what the issues around health and wellbeing are, the number one is your boss. If you have an emotionally intelligent line manager with social interpersonal skills, you wouldn't have half the problems.”

In a Gartner survey of 4,787 employees, one in two did not feel confident their manager could lead them into the future. In this new working world managers need to place more emphasis on the relationships and the overall wellbeing of their teams. HR leaders can help managers move beyond the ‘teacher’ role, anchored on past experiences that are no longer relevant, to what Roca calls the ‘connector’ – guiding employees, providing targeted feedback and developing them for current and future roles. It’s important that managers can ask the right questions to build deeper connections to understand what employees need to do work

“Such a lot of virtual working has become transactional- ‘what do you need from me, what do I need from you’,-that we have lost the deeper thinking.  The more overwhelmed you feel as a manager, the more important it is that you take some time to nurture good working relationships with your colleagues,” says Bird.

HR leaders must also now think of remote, hybrid and the office as new ‘demographics’ to audit when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion to prevent managerial biases surfacing. And, as the research from the Centre for Transformative Work Design finds, managers who struggled most with leading remote teams had low job autonomy and excessively controlling and low-trust bosses. HR leaders need to tackle this issue right from the start, as well as educating managers about the potential benefits of remote working when it is designed well, training them how to check in rather than check up on and helping managers to understand how to manage by results.

Published 20 October 2021
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