How to relieve the strain on line managers

Feeling stretched even before the pandemic, many line managers are struggling to cope with the new set of problems that hybrid working poses. What can HR do help?

The widespread adoption of flexible and hybrid working in many industries is presenting novel challenges to line managers, who need more support from the HR function in handling these and their ever-expanding remits. Effective backing will prove vital, because line managers are the “stewards of sustainable performance and employee experience”. 

So says Dr Caitlin Duffy, research director at Gartner, who notes that their people management skills – or, rather, their deficiencies in this area – have become “the number-two driver of attrition behind compensation. When there are so many options in today’s talent market, managers are more critical than ever in getting the best performance out of their staff and retaining top talent.”

Line managers are often under immense pressure. Even before the pandemic, a research report by the Institute for Employment Studies, The Squeezed Middle: why HR should be hugging and not squeezing line managers, revealed that they were taking on tasks that were traditionally in HR’s domain, such as performance management and the career development of their team members. Senior executives were also counting on them to set targets and maintain organisational standards, while also ensuring customer satisfaction, representing brand values and keeping abreast of industry developments, among other responsibilities.

As the uptake of hybrid working increases, the people management elements of line managers’ roles, which have been rendered more onerous by the Covid crisis, are expected to become trickier still. This situation, which is already reaching “tipping point”, according to Duffy, is leading many of them to feel overloaded.

“Line managers have been rising to the occasion, but at what cost? They are starting to burn out,” she says. “Their experience is in danger of causing attrition.” 

One of the biggest new challenges facing them is how to communicate effectively with team members who may not be in the same place at the same time. Julie Brophy, principal consultant for organisational development consultancy OE Cam, points out that doing so “requires more intentional focus and perspective, which takes more effort” than it does in the case of centrally based teams.

Important issues in this context include guarding against distance bias, she says. Failing to do so can not only lead to unconscious discrimination; it can also damage the sense of belonging and engagement of remote workers who feel left out of the loop.

Line managers also need to find ways to empower their team members so that they can work out for themselves the most effective ways of achieving the results expected of them.

Line managers have been rising to the occasion, but at what cost? They are starting to burn out

“It’s an approach based not on how you deliver but on what you deliver, which means that how and when something is done is more under the control of the individual doing it,” Brophy explains. “Enabling this kind of autonomy requires more of a coaching approach to management – which is more demanding for the manager.”

Another challenge for line managers is supporting the health and wellbeing of an increasingly dispersed team and creating a psychologically safe environment that enables people to be themselves and speak out if necessary. The new world of work is rendering the standardised, one-size-fits-all approach to team management obsolete. Managers must increasingly provide individualised support and offer flexibility for each member. Duffy notes that this imperative can cause problems for them from a capacity standpoint.

What can HR do to lighten the load? Brophy suggests removing “organisational blockers” that make it harder for line managers to do their jobs. Such factors will vary from employer to employer, of course, but an example would be a reward structure that’s unintentionally incentivising undesirable behaviour. 

It may also be necessary to redesign line managers’ roles. For employers that operate a project-based organisational structure, it could be valuable to split managerial roles into ‘leaders of work’ and ‘leaders of people’, for instance. Assigning employees a permanent people manager will provide consistency, even when the project teams they work in, and the project managers they work under, change regularly.

Another way HR can help is by supporting soft skills development. This could come in the shape of providing formal management training, but other interventions include creating networking groups that enable line managers to share their insights and providing access to coaches and mentors.

One employer that has taken such an approach is sustainable food producer Ecotone UK. The company has introduced a formal coaching scheme for all middle managers. Some of its managers have trained to be coaches so that they can support their peers, but external help is also provided.

But this isn’t simply about skills development, notes Ecotone’s HR director, Ann Chambers. It’s also about ensuring that line managers feel properly supported, particularly when operating in difficult circumstances. Just as important is giving them explicit permission to make space and time for their own wellbeing. 

Chambers adds that HR professionals should also aim to serve as role models for line managers, always exhibiting the appropriate behaviour, whatever the situation. Most of all, HR should be there for line managers in much the same sense that line managers should be there for their staff. 

“Our job as HR professionals is to act as mirrors,” she says. “If we support line managers in the right way, they’ll have the confidence and experience to support their teams in the right way too, which means that everyone benefits.”