Opinion

Part 2 – How can middle management serve as an effective bridge between senior management and their teams?

The reality is that your company’s middle managers wear many hats, all of which are important during a crisis. They are your company's most important line of defense to help you navigate this new norm.

Elwyn Loh

June 7th, 2021

The global response to COVID-19 has resulted in the most rapid workplace transformation. The fact is that this pandemic does not discriminate. Businesses of all sizes have been forced to adapt their business models to changing demands. The need for speed to change will not be fleeting.

Much has been shared about the changes for business needs. For the month of June, we wanted to share a little about the “people side” of change. From senior to middle management, to working level employees, mental wellness and families.


Middle managers are in a unique and difficult position, acting as a bridge between administrative decision making and the on-the-ground experience and expertise of their direct reports. Middle managers have a unique perspective and influence throughout the organizational hierarchy as a result of their position.

In this article, we want to talk about the experiences of middle managers during the time of COVID-19. The challenges and decisions they had to go through during this time.

We hope this will offer some validation for other middle managers and provide transparency for senior level executives. In turn, perhaps some of these insights will help those of us in leadership create a supportive and stable a workplace for all as we navigate these uncertain times.

 

What changed for middle management?

A key role of a middle manager is to serve as a liaison between those who do the day-to-day work and those who make organizational decisions. By managing up and down with finesse, they work to make this conduit smooth and nearly invisible. They combine information, perspectives, and expertise to strengthen priorities and decision-making. Their perspective is unique in that they are involved in both day-to-day work and administration.

Even in normal times, this ambiguous role is already complex and difficult, what more during a pandemic like COVID-19.

The sudden unexpected shutdowns and ongoing disruptions introduced the new concept of working-from-home. Middle managers became the hubs in the wheels that kept staff connected to the organization and to one another.

As supervisors, they had to understand each direct report’s personal situation and urgent needs. Middle managers like Rachel, Head of Customer Relations at LittleLives, had to learn about her team’s personal responsibilities and workloads. She ran interventions for those who were suddenly overwhelmed at home caring for young kids or elderly parents in the middle of a work day. She had to juggle between being a team leader and a team member.

With the constant policy updates and changes, it was important to communicate with their teams more frequently. They scheduled daily or biweekly Zoom meetings, which often was a combination of social & informal check-ins and routine work. They contacted staff more frequently, often on a daily basis, to communicate updates or simply to check in on their well-being. There was also a surge in time spent at leadership-level discussions and administrative tasks.

Middle management were also flooded with human resource questions. They had to quickly determine how to handle a range of complicated, varied issues for their direct reports. Approving last minute time-offs to pick up a sick child from school to extended medical leaves for those who exhibit symptoms of the virus.

 

Flexibility is the key to stability

One thing we’ve all learned during this pandemic is that we can’t predict the future and the need to be flexible is key to managing changes. A daunting task for more traditional companies.

Workplace flexibility has evolved from purely time-based flexibility to priority-based flexibility. Staying on top of each employee’s personal circumstances in order to adapt or reallocate workloads has become a new challenge for middle managers. Previously, it was safe to assume that everyone had the capacity to work predetermined schedules and handle assigned workloads during their 9 to 6.

Unforeseen circumstances do not happen as often. Today, they not only have to deal with sudden changes but also differences in how and whether employees’ home environments are set up for work. Some lacked Internet access, or a quiet place to work. We even had a colleague who was carrying her toddler as she was presenting to a client. As middle managers, you have to be more adaptable than ever before in order to support employees in stressful situations.

“With this pandemic, lives, routines and schedules have been turned upside down and most of us are finding some semblance of a ‘norm’ – which could look very different from the next person depending on our circumstance.” says Luke, Marketing Manager at UPS.

There’s going to be many ways you could introduce flexibility among your team.

For Luke, he sets up touchpoints to ensure everything is on track. This gives his team the flexibility to fit their work schedules according to the other personal responsibilities they might have. And if help is needed in any particular area, the touchpoints serves as timely check-ins that allow him to deliberate how best to proceed.

At LittleLives, Elwyn, Branding & Communications Manager found that being honest about his own limitations has enabled him to model this type of flexibility for his team.

He advises middle managers to just be frank and tell your direct reports when you cannot meet a deadline or if you are under pressure which may delay your responsibility to deliver something to them. If you show them that it is ok to adjust deadlines and work, they will feel empowered to do the same.

 

Transparent and focused communication

A senior financial manager at Prudential, said that in the first two months of remote working, he learnt how effective communication within the team is essential in keeping everyone on the same page. He knew that the consistent flow of information was important and e-mails alone will not cut it.

Within his team of 5, he scheduled weekly one-on-one meetings with his team members. The meetings were used to discuss their struggles in balancing their personal lives and professional obligations. Having oversight of each member’s upcoming deadlines and workload, he assisted them in developing a work schedule with periodic breaks. He also allowed them to work in their own time, as many of them had to juggle childcare as well. He was also extra careful of how he crafted his messages, and worked hard to keep the channel open and approachable.

It is important to have different platforms for receiving and sharing information. Ensure that your team is aware of how they can reach out to you.

 

Keeping morale up

Gone are the days where you are able to head out for coffee breaks or grab a beer during happy hour. This lack of casual interactions has created an invisible veil that is bad for team morale. But the fact remains that it is important to instill team spirit for your team to collaborate and work in synergy. Otherwise, you risk having your team working in silo.

You could arrange a weekly online get together with your team, preferably on a Friday to end off the week. Trivia quizzes, online games such as Jackbox games, and happy hours were some initiatives that the companies at Potato Production did. We even hosted watch parties for ‘Friends: The Reunion’ and relive the entire ‘Friends’ series together.

Could we BE having any more fun?

For starters, you are going to have to acknowledge that remote work creates a strain in team collaboration. That helps you start planning a course of action to tackle that problem. If you fail to acknowledge, then you risk the collapse of morale.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating a community to rely on.

 

Take every win that comes

Being an effective leader in these uncertain and challenging times requires diligence, efficiency, and the ability to keep your team’s morale high. Encourage your team to find meaning in their work and recognize their accomplishments, big and small, to keep morale up. Frankly, the thrill of small wins is truly remarkable.

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed how small wins could “ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work.” They explained, “even events that people thought were unimportant had powerful effects on inner work life.

As team leads, you have to consciously instill optimism within your team on a regular basis. Don’t hold back the praises and cheers. With the constant fear of the uncertainty that’s going on in the world, celebrating victories, even small ones, keeps the wheel turning.

So send out that job well done message or the hurrah email to end off the week. After weathering such an unprecedented crisis, we all deserve to find joy in little triumphs and not sweat the small stuff.

 

Don’t neglect yourself

As middle managers, don’t underestimate the responsibilities you have to shoulder.

You’re a communicator, facilitator, advocate, decision maker. In these roles, your main job is to bring calm during these stormy weathers. You have the opportunity to bring both your staff’s and your own perspectives to the table. Even if the final decisions are not ideal, take solace in the fact that you were able to advocate for your team.

Because so much of our job is to be there for your team while also implementing business strategies, it is easy for you to neglect your own priorities and needs. But keep in mind that you face many of the same difficulties as everyone else. Even if your job requires you to lead and support others, you should not feel obligated to keep these issues to yourself.

It is prudent to increase your self-care and peer support so that you can continue to demonstrate the tremendous flexibility and resiliency required of you at this time.

Let’s lean into what we have already learned in order to continue showing up for one another.

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