Challenges Managers Face
After a rollercoaster period of only working in the office, only working from home, working here, there, and everywhere: the dust is beginning to settle. As of this writing, all virus-related restrictions have been removed, including the so-called “guidelines” for working from home. It means that the decision about where employees do their work lies with the employer. The government can no longer be blamed.
That said, many employers now recognise that people don’t need to be in the office because they work online all the time, and so they’re reducing the size of their business space as an immediate way to cut costs. And many employees have also discovered that they’d rather not have to commute or work in a noisy office, or arrange childcare, and prefer to work from home. All of this means that what has been referred to as the “new normal” is here to stay - a hybrid of working in the office, doing so from home, or from some other remote location.
Hybrid working has changed the way that people work together. The issues are still largely the same, but the context is different, and that means that things will have to be looked at in a new light. When everything was topsy-turvy, and it could be argued that many people still didn’t know what’s going on; that all of this was in a state of flux. But now that the nation knows that it’s going to have to get back into a more predictable routine in the workplace at least, it will do so through different lenses.
There are many issues that managers have to face. They still need to find skilled employees and learn to hold onto them. They still need to develop their own leadership abilities, as well as in others who will succeed them, and they still need to monitor performance without letting it become an administrative nightmare or threaten staff retention.
Those three things are enough to keep managers busy for all of their careers and longer.Let’s think about these things in the current workplace - the one that’s predictable only to the extent that there are no restrictions, but unpredictable because people have become used to a great deal more flexibility than they had before all this began.
These pairs of issues are not dichotomies, though some would certainly see them as such. For instance, there are those who are willing to do what’s necessary to find skilled employees, but who think that what they consider to be touchy-feely to hold onto them is for wimps.There are those who think that others need to learn how to lead, but are unwilling to be taught how to do it themselves. “Training and development is for everyone else,” they’d say.
And there are those who relish the thought of calculating appraisal scores, matching them - if that’s even possible - to other numbers that reflect organisational performance, applying bonus formulas, and documenting it all to boot, all the while missing the point of doing it at all. Perhaps these are extreme perspectives, but no doubt you know, and may even work with, people who are like this.
What about the first one: Find skilled workers and hold onto them
These are two problems that are closely related.
You may be just about old enough to remember a time when there were more qualified people than jobs for them to fill. And at that time the view held by many was that managers could treat people in whatever way they wished. It’s one reason why employees felt the need to join unions. They didn’t feel that they could protect themselves any other way.
If employees had a grievance - legitimate or otherwise - they had to be careful not to upset their boss because, as they were reminded periodically, “there are a hundred people just like you who’d be happy to have your job.”The tables have been turned, as you know. And so while finding skilled people is challenging simply because of the aging workforce - which by the way would’ve happened irrespective of Brexit, retaining the ones you have has also turned out to be equally difficult.
Part of the reason that retention has become arduous is because managerial attitudes don’t change overnight. Neither do their reputations. Managers who have a track record for treating staff as expendable or who are perceived to be that way will struggle in this respect. They will discover, if they haven’t already, that you reap what you sow.
That said, there will be those who genuinely want to change. How can they do that?For starters, they should aim to build strong relationships with each of the people that they supervise. Now, there is a fine line between a personal and professional relationship, nevertheless managers will find that the better they know someone, and the more they like one another, the better they’ll work together and get the results that they want.
Each relationship will be different, and this is a place where managers have to be especially careful. Although friends work together better, there must be no appearance - real or imagined - of favouritism. There can be a “chemical” difference in terms of how some personalities meld better than others, but this shouldn’t be allowed to create cliques or false “inner circles.” Anything like that will cloud the perception of fairness, and that must not happen.
Managers who have a poor reputation to live down, however, must make it their number one priority to improve the relationships that they have with those they supervise because that, more than anything else, will make people want to work for them and to keep working for them.
Develop leadership skills in themselves and others who will succeed them
This challenge shows up with those who have one set of standards for themselves, and another for everyone else. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “rank has its privileges.” Others are far less diplomatic in their view of these things. It’s interesting that the organisations who place a high value on training and development routinely budget for it and to a much greater extent than those who don’t. They also retain it in the face of fiscal pressures, whereas those who don’t value it are quick to cut it out at the earliest opportunity.
There are managers (and leaders) who believe that they have sufficient expertise to lead and manage people and, even if they didn’t, fell that they don’t have time to learn how. They believe that what got them here will get them there. The issue isn’t even up for discussion.The thing is that leadership and management skills take time to develop. And while one course won’t solve the problem, neither will pretending that it doesn’t exist will make it go away.
Most professional organisations obligate their members to complete a certain amount of continuing professional development, or CPD. This training has to be vetted, that is it has to qualify according to the professional body as appropriate to the person’s job, and it must be documented. Leaders and managers could benefit from a similar program where they work, and they could be held accountable for completing it via their own performance appraisals.
Although many of the leadership and management problems remain the same, the past couple of years have shown just how quickly the context can change. CPD is perhaps the best way for leaders, managers, and employees to stay on top of it.
One reason why what got you here won’t get you there is because of the huge gap that now exists between the two. And just like Moore’s Law, our knowledge is increasing so fast that it’s impossible to ever know it all, never mind what’s relevant. That’s one reason that the best management consultants can be so helpful: They make it their business to anticipate problems that you face and to devise solutions to fix them.
Monitor performance without creating an administrative nightmare that also threatens staff retention
It’s always easier to make things more complicated than they already are. The challenge is to keep them simple.
One place where this is especially true is with respect to monitoring performance. The extent to which it needs to be documented is debatable, and it likely that much less documentation is needed than what is created; after all, the goal is to improve things; not record past failings and mistakes. When you create copious reports and forms that detail errors, it also means that you’re not focusing on what people are doing right. That alone puts everyone in the wrong frame of mind. It’s back to that idea of “no news is good news.”
People don’t work well under those circumstances. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They need three to five positive things said to them for every negative thing. And so if they hear nothing when they perform well, but are faced with a stack of documentation when things go wrong, then you threaten staff retention. You may not like it, but that’s what the research shows.
Performance, however, must be monitored. It’s been said that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. On the other hand, when you constantly measure, you risk missing your long-term objectives because you’re busy reinforcing short-term behaviour. Sometimes it’s necessary to do things in the short term that would be harmful to the organisation if you continued to do them day after day. To use a different illustration, two paracetamol may be the right dose, but not the whole bottle.
How then do you monitor performance without creating an administrative nightmare that threatens staff retention? You keep it simple. You only do the minimum that’s necessary. You aim to do it less often.
It was Robert Townsend who way back in the 1970s pointed out that the well known measurement method, 'Management by Objectives,' seemed to last all year. And that was because by the time everyone agreed on everything it was time for them to report on how everything went.
The point of monitoring organisational and staff performance is not to make a project out of the system. Instead, it’s to better understand how you’re doing, and where improvements can be made. Although people need to know how to improve - no doubt, they already know that they need to - they don’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact, especially in the absence of being told what they’re doing right.
Another thing is that perhaps more now than ever, it’s because people have the flexibility to change jobs easily that they’re not afraid to do so if the job they signed up to do becomes something else. The teaching profession witnessed this 30 years ago. No teacher goes into the job for the money. They go into it because they love to teach. But when all manner of testing was introduced, and they had to spend copious hours documenting everything, that’s when they lost interest. It wasn’t what they signed up for. Many left the profession for good as a result.
In the “new normal” - the new world of work, where more people work from home than ever before, managers struggle to find and retain skilled employees to the greatest extent that they have for perhaps 100 years. Part of the shortage is due to the retirement of the Baby-Boom generation, though much of it is occurring simply because online work has opened up opportunities around the world. Employers are no longer limited to competing for talent in their neighbourhood, or even in their country. Others from the other side of the world may want the same people that you do.
This has meant that leadership and managerial weaknesses have come to the fore. Whereas in the past, senior people could just about get away without any form of continuous professional development, the fact that so many people regularly engage in it means that they’re being left behind. They must deliberately engage in further training if they have any hope of remaining current, and they mustn’t be afraid to train those who will eventually succeed them. Doing so doesn’t threaten their jobs, though failing to do so certainly will.
Organisational and employee performance must still be monitored, but only as much as is required; not as much as is possible. There’s a difference. One reflects what’s necessary - what’s effective; the other - how to fill time.
Ever since the Horizontal Revolution, when hierarchies were stripped to the bone, leaders and managers have had plenty to do. That’s not to say that they weren’t busy before, but now there are far fewer people to delegate things to. And so only what’s absolutely necessary should be done, and that includes any kind of performance monitoring. These challenges will only get more acute. You’ll have to deal with them for the rest of your working life.