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Squeezed in the middle: How to help middle managers (and their teams) thrive

In this new distributed world, middle managers need to redefine their roles. It’s on leaders to make it easier for them, says Brian Elliott, vice president of Future Forum.

Middle managers are feeling the pressure of remote work more than individual contributors or senior executives, but there are tactical actions they can take this week to make their lives better—and their teams more productive.

Top 3 takeaways

  • Build networks: Provide forums for them to share their challenges and successes.
  • Get tactical: Help them with clear ways to track status, share information, and understand the load on their teams.
  • Avoid burnout: Make sure your managers  know what’s most important, and what can drop off their plates.

Although some employees are faring better in the world of remote work, that’s not true of middle managers. Our Remote Employee Experience Index found that they are struggling, far more so than individual contributors or senior executives. In particular, they have a lower sense of belonging and they say they are less productive.

A waning sense of belonging and lack of support

Belonging was an issue overall for people working remotely, but it was far more negative for middle managers than non-managers. Mid-level supervisors are 91% more likely than senior leaders to say it is harder to maintain relationships in the workplace and only 63% of them felt they could rely on their colleagues to support them versus 90% of senior executives. 

Middle managers are saddled with all the work of managing people, yet they also answer to higher-ups whose policies they must enforce—even when they don’t have a say in making those policies and their direct reports object to them. It’s no wonder that mid-level executives are feeling the squeeze even more during the pandemic. They are literally caught in the middle. Middle managers also often lack the networks and support that senior executives have already built.

Are middle managers getting less done?

Although our research showed that productivity jumped for employees overall when working remotely, middle manager productivity was 36% lower than non-managers. Only 61% of managers say their workload is manageable versus 81% for senior executives. 

Middle managers are also struggling to stay on top of project status and team workloads. One of their top concerns was “time spent tracking others’ workloads and ensuring they know what needs to be done.” Given the increasingly cross-functional nature of work today, managers are struggling with how to stay on top of status. One of the first things they tend to do is call status check meetings, which our survey shows degrades team performance. It is also a productivity drain: Middle managers are 51% more likely than senior executives to say they’re spending too much time in meetings.

The negative effects of over-reliance on meetings don’t just extend to middle management. Our research showed that workers who attend weekly status meetings actually feel worse about their sense of belonging than workers who receive status updates asynchronously through digital channels. Moving status checks from meetings to digital channels took teams from a negative sense of belonging to a positive one. 

Pro tip: Adopt synchronous communication, which depends on companies giving employees access to modern tools. Not only do asynchronous interactions improve sense of belonging, but also, because all project assets and communications are in one place, managers can see where projects stand at a glance, while avoiding unproductive weekly status meetings.

Attendance tracking or leadership?

Perhaps the biggest question to ask regarding middle management: How can we train, tool, and support middle managers, and how do we expect them to lead? Are they there to take attendance and be human routers of information on projects? Are they supposed to empower teams based on purpose? Or are you expecting them to do both?

No wonder they’re stressed! And no wonder they need some practical help. 

Tactical tips to improve the lives of middle managers and their teams

Here are some specific ways to help middle managers—and improve the working lives of their teams.

Build support networks

Some of the teams we work with at Slack have started hosting regular networking and group problem-solving sessions for managers. We’re bringing groups together by function to compare problems they’re facing and share examples of what they’re trying. This builds new ideas and creates the bonds they need, particularly when they’re not able to grab a quick hallway conversation. 

Pro tip: Consider mixing up groups by function, hierarchy, and geography so people are problem-solving with new ideas and fresh perspectives.  

Provide very tactical, practical advice. Get prescriptive and detailed in examples of how middle managers can solve specific problems, and which tools are likely to help them most. 

  1. Status tracking. Provide examples of how to track status. Don’t be shy about giving advice about what tools to use (e.g. Jira, Trello, spreadsheets), when to set deadline deadlines, where to communicate status, and how to gather feedback. 
  2. Prioritization. More than ever, individual contributors need to understand priorities, and managers need to know when people are overloaded. Help managers build strong regular habits: weekly 1:1s allow individuals to review priorities and commitments and make it safer for individuals to say “no,” rather than waiting until they collapse under unrealistic loads. As follow-up, communicate priorities across teams in as public a channel as possible to drive alignment and surface concerns.
  3. Escalations. Escalation sounds like a bad word, but great companies normalize it. It’s natural in cross-discipline work for conflicts of priority or understanding to arise. Don’t let teams or middle managers drown in conflict. Reinforce escalations to resolve issues quickly standard practice, and ensure that senior executives set the example by resolving issues in a timely manner, too. Also, communicate rationale for the decisions they’ve made.

Pro tip: Set a weekly cadence for weekly updates on status and priorities; for example, updates in your project tracker of choice by Monday noon, 24 hours to raise concerns within the team, and published priorities by Tuesday noon in a Slack channel or group email alias.

Invest more in them, at the right stage

Too often, early-stage middle managers are taking the role of manager because it’s the only way forward on the career path. Sometimes, their first priority is not to manage people. This results in middle managers leading two, three, or—worse yet—one person, and more middle managers than you can effectively train. 

Career aspirations, particularly at earlier stages, can be balanced with expert tracks that reward individual contributors who bring value through their work. When people are free to choose between expert and management tracks, experts are happier in their roles and more training and support can be focused on those who want to lead through management. 

Pick one area, and start this week

There are many more ways to help resolve the challenges that middle managers face, but start at a minimum by providing them the forums to build their networks, and the tactical processes and tools they need to be more effective in their jobs. They also have to start leading focused on outcomes (vs. activity) and creating flexible workflows, and those are major shifts. Do everything you can to support them, and reduce their stress and burnout so they can become the leaders they want to be.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, whether that means trying a networking event, testing new tactics, or empathy training for middle managers. Keep trying until you find what’s working, and amplify the success of those experiments—and those managers!

Note: This article was created by the Future Forum by Slack and originally appeared on their blog.