How to manage teams effectively in the new world of work

Employers are increasingly aware of the vital role that line managers play in hybrid and remote-working contexts

While line managers used to be considered “the frozen middle”, they have now become “pivotal” to organisational success in a world that is moving increasingly towards hybrid working, believes HR guru Lynda Gratton.

The reason for this shift in perception, which had started before but accelerated during the pandemic, is that managers are now recognised as “critical catalysts for change”. 

They are also understood to be “carriers of culture, the glue, drivers of performance and engagement, and connectors”, adds Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School and co-founder of HSM Advisory.

Put another way, managers play a crucial role in creating a positive employee experience, which includes becoming effective coaches who proactively support and develop their teams. Also vital is becoming a skilful storyteller as “crafting narratives to win buy-in and support purpose” is the “glue” that binds everything else together, says Gratton.

Mary Beighton, director of people and culture at car finance specialist Zuto, agrees. 

“This layer is critical as middle managers are ultimately responsible for engaging and motivating teams on a daily basis – they’re the first point of contact, whether virtually or in person,” she says. 

Modern managers

But the managerial role has also evolved “incredibly”, particularly over the past few years since new ways of working came into play, Beighton acknowledges. This means a lot more is now expected of them, which includes the need to be more intentional and deliberate in how they manage others.

“Line managers are trying to balance traditional responsibilities, such as managing and motivating performance, with representing the business from a values perspective and translating that vision to the workforce,” she points out. “There’s also the additional challenge of supporting employee wellbeing and amplifying employee voice, so they have a huge amount of responsibility.”

What this means in practice is that managers operating in a hybrid or remote-working context are now required to demonstrate higher levels of proficiency in soft skills.

Mike Thackray, principal consultant at organisational development consultancy OE Cam, explains: “Managers need to be able to dial up all the skills that were necessary before to a whole new level. This includes emotional intelligence (EQ) as understanding individual situations, circumstances and needs has become much more important.”

Managers need to become connectors. This means facilitating connection-focused conversations to ensure employees are highly engaged

Other key skills include effective decision-making, particularly in relation to hybrid-working practices and especially if clear organisational guidelines do not exist. A key problem here, though, Thackray says, is that “some managers just haven’t got the skills or confidence to make those kinds of calls, not least because as soon as you make a decision for one person and it’s different for another, you lay yourself open to challenge.”

This situation is also not helped at times by a lack of consensus among senior executives as to the hybrid working approach they should take – or even if they should go down this route at all.

Debbie Bayntun-Lees is professor of organisational development, DEIB and change at the Hult International Business School (Ashridge). She explains: “There are organisations where leaders are in conflict, with some wanting to go hybrid and some not, but this creates paralysis, and causes tension and delayed decision-making. Managers tend to go to HR for help but are often in the dark too as it’s all so new and everything’s still in the experimental phase.”

Relationship building

Little thought has traditionally been given to how managers are affected by this kind of scenario. But it can result in them feeling caught in the middle between senior executives and their employees, who are often keen to work more flexibly and have in some instances taken advantage of today’s competitive jobs market to vote with their feet.

The upshot of these pressures is line managers who can feel “disempowered and demoralised”, a scenario that frequently has a negative impact on staff morale too.

As a result, Bayntun-Lees points to the importance of both leaders and managers learning to interact with their teams in what she describes as an “intentional relational” fashion. One of the aims here is to find ways of developing “quality relationships and interactions” so that both staff (and their managers) feel “known, valued and involved”.

“Leaders and managers need to become connectors,” she explains. “This means facilitating connection-focused conversations to ensure employees are highly engaged with the organisational mission and work expectations but also that leaders are connected to employees’ aspirations and wellbeing.”

Managers tend to go to HR for help but they’re often in the dark too as it’s all so new and everything’s still in the experimental phase

To do so requires a managerial mindset that is “able to learn, share power and responsibility and collaborate with people. But it also requires leaders to be visible, to develop rapport, build trust and create psychological safety”, Bayntun-Lees says. 

A key skill in this context is facilitating discussion both among teams and with individuals. This includes learning how to hold difficult conversations and managing employee expectations on issues, such as flexible working options or pay rises during today’s cost-of-living crisis. 

But it also involves enabling inclusive dialogue in which everyone is given a voice, not least on how hybrid working might work for their team. Addressing power imbalances and potential conflict are other important considerations. “It’s about injecting more humanity into the world of work and ensuring that managers understand the power they have both in terms of their own role and in managing the power differentials of their team to help create more of a level playing field – and it’s a new set of skills for many,” says Bayntun-Lees.

Another set of vital but all too frequently overlooked skills that managers likewise need to develop, meanwhile, are what Gratton calls hybrid-enabled practical skills. While they may appear to be basic, administrative activities such as jointly developing team agreements on acceptable behaviour and planning for more effective workflows can make a significant difference in helping teams manage their time more effectively to sustain high performance levels.

Learning new tricks

As to how managers can best go about learning new skills and enhancing old ones, there are various possible approaches. Management training and upskilling courses that have been revised to support hybrid and remote working will undoubtedly help. Zuto, for example, updated its management development programme to include new modules on resilience and holding difficult conversations. It also opened up participation in both areas to any interested employees, to help them “feel more equipped to deal with any challenges”, Beighton says. But beyond more formal training, role models and mentors also have a vital role to play. 

“There’s a level of self-awareness required for all this and it’s difficult to develop without focused help,” says Bayntun-Lees. “A lot of managers feel pulled in all directions and need guidance, so support from role models is key.”

Another useful strategy is to introduce peer-to-peer learning. Here, line managers across the business get together regularly to discuss any issues, challenges or innovations to learn from shared experiences.

But Zuto has also been careful to introduce several support mechanisms, such as standardised talent management frameworks, to provide clear career pathways for both employees and managers going forward.

“It’s been a challenging transition for line managers over the last few years, with a lot of new things expected of them, so we wanted to provide processes, structure and consistency. There’s a huge amount of responsibility in the line manager position these days so it’s important to focus on heightening skills to help them adapt, manage expectations and inspire the troops,” Beighton concludes.