Middle managers are perhaps the most surprising victims of the new ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to more than fifty senior business leaders from across Australia who recently met virtually to discuss the pandemic’s effects.
The board members and senior business leaders – all executive mentors for McCarthy Mentoring – agreed isolation, lack of peer learning, fewer promotion opportunities and reduced networks are negatively impacting the careers and development of women and young people, but that middle management is also particularly affected.
The mentors discussed seeing the impacts of middle managers trying to motivate and connect to their teams to manage delivery and productivity as needed by the organisation, but also being heavily invested in the personal welfare of teams. All while managing their own WFH challenges.
Some middle managers had reported feeling they’d been exploited and overworked, and that they were exhausted.
Bain finds “it’s no surprise then that middle managers are overwhelmed—they spend every day bouncing between running the business and building through experimentation.”
Or as Harvard Business Review’s Why Being A Middle Manager is So Exhausting, described it, they are the “messy middle”, called on constantly to switch between the role of follower to leader, and to make dozens of decisions daily, but not always the big ones and not always with power to drive change.
In another piece, How To Handle The Pressure Of Being A Manager Right Now, HBR reported the COVID-19 crisis as having middle managers “squeezed”: “You’ve had to take a pay-cut, lay off employees, and deliver bad news up and down the organisational chart.”
Worse still, last month ABC reported a wave of middle managers losing their jobs, particularly in the financial services sector, consulting sector, and other administration roles in the private sector.
As many others have also reported, women are also particularly negatively impacted, borne out by research.
For example, early reports from Melbourne University’s Work and Care in the Time of COVID-19 research are finding women with children are more likely to carry out home responsibilities and unpaid care when WFH, limiting opportunities for the extra networking and out of hours work that can impact the advancement of women to senior levels.
We also know single parents are mostly women and the juggle has been particularly tough.
Without adequate care options, women are more likely to step out or choose WFH options that will disadvantage them if men are back in offices. In a recent article in the AFR Minter Ellison’s Managing Partner Virginia Briggs said: “I worry that, as the more senior male lawyers come back into the office, there will be an unconscious bias of giving the better work (and the better development opportunities) to the people who are in the office, who may more regularly happen to also be men.”
In addition, many women work part-time and their work-hours provided an important outlet which has now largely disappeared.
The third group raised by the mentors is young people, in the early stages of their careers.
Some had only just gone through the induction process and met their work colleagues before they were asked to work from home.
Career wise, they are missing the strategic networking, informal learning and cultural engagement that comes from office work, including the corridor chats that build the important networks and influencing opportunities.
The mentors’ challenge has been to support those in their 20s and 30s to develop strategies to address the missed opportunities from the informal learning and intelligence gained from working alongside more experienced colleagues.
It’s worth remembering that the workplace can be a big part of people’s lives – particularly for young people. People meet their partners there, they make friends, and workplaces can be incredibly stimulating and exciting. For young people, working from home often means sub-optimal work spaces, set up in bedrooms or dining tables of shared accommodation.
Indeed, being isolated from managers, colleagues and support networks is one of the ‘hazards’ of working from home, particularly for the first time, identified by Safe Work Australia
Then there’s the matter of technology. I think we’re all feeling that being on Zoom eight hours a day is a lot more draining than having face-to-face meetings. There’s not a lot of chat for rapport building– people go straight into agendas, and they are whipping through the items. Unlike face-to-face meetings, they don’t talk about their families, or other things that might be somewhat related – discussions that play an important role in strengthening relationships and building trust.
On the upside, mentors were agreed that technology to deliver everything has enhanced productivity and flexibility. Technology has also enabled mentoring to continue virtually with all mentors reporting that it has had little to no impact on the value and effectiveness of the sessions. Indeed, some have said virtual mentoring has been very powerful, with more focused discussions or the opportunity to connect more often without the commute and location challenges.
This is backed up by a report referred to in HBR’s Social Distancing Doesn’t Have to Disrupt Mentorship by professors at the US Naval War College, who cited evidence that “mentoring via real-time videoconferencing yields equivalent outcomes to in-person mentoring”. The evidence was based on a 2018 review of 66 studies assessing ‘telementoring’ of surgeons.
Flexibility & autonomy
Another silver lining of WFH is that many workers are also enjoying more flexible working arrangements, more focus on purpose, and the removal of the commute.
For some, this gives them time back in their day, more of a sense of autonomy and control over their lives and how they spend their time.
For people who are super disciplined, they’re able to fit in exercise, and other things that give them energy and help them enjoy their careers and jobs more.
Yet others are missing the time to decompress and other aspects of the commute, prompting some to create a “fake commute” at the start and end of their work day – often as simple as going out to get a coffee.
Long lasting changes
Finally, there was general consensus among our mentors that many of the changes to the way we work are likely to be permanent – or at the very least, likely to last several years – so we need to lead for now.
Indeed, McCarthy Mentoring mentor Sara Watts, suspects that while the temptation might be to return back to what we knew six months ago, we won’t and in some cases can’t, and encouraged adopting a growth mindset so we take advantage of what this change allows us, and think about what we could do differently, what we had to implement really quickly six months ago, and how we can maintain the best of that.
“It’s people being brave enough and courageous enough to say, well it worked when we were locked down, so let’s maintain it,” Sara said.
Surely very solid advice.