In our last post about the Future of Work, we talked about the big, structural changes that are starting to impact businesses and the wider economy; churn in the labor market, alternative scheduling, and the overall impact of anxiety and uncertainty that are starting to become characteristic of 21st Century society. Interesting and heady stuff, but let’s now narrow the focus to something the average person has more control over: the manager/employee relationship.
When the goal of a business is to produce the proverbial widget, the manager’s primary accountability is to pursue efficiency in all things. Under this paradigm, extracting the maximum value with minimal investment applies to people as much as it does to raw materials. There are certain sectors of the economy where this mindset is on depressing display (the way certain tech giants treat warehouse or delivery employees comes to mind). Fortunately, most business leaders and managers are committed to a more human-centered and collaborative approach, especially if you want your team to stay innovative and motivated. This is on display right now, with many companies responding to employee requests for more flexible approaches like permanent remote work policies.
As old structures go away however, so does the certainty they provided. The possibilities and flexibility created by remote work, unlimited vacation, etc. upend many of the previous expectations and etiquette we have all internalized about work. If your team is intrinsically motivated, they will generally respond to this uncertainty by over-performing, as a way to signal to their managers and teammates that they are not abusing the ability to work in a more flexible environment. The tendency to be “always on” is strong, and people will burn themselves out, resent their manager, and eventually start underperforming.
It is important for managers to clearly and proactively communicate expectations. Even better is to have your team become partners in creating them. Both private and public sector organizations are recognizing the research pointing to “..the most productive teams are the ones where the manager leads them in establishing their own norms and work practices”. Our team at the Taylor Group will periodically review and rewrite our ‘Operating Principles’, a set of agreements that we collectively make to one another that governs the team’s workflow. These principles (and the process through which they are created) also serves as an expression of our values and identity, helping camaraderie and cohesion.
What all of this starts to point to is that the manager’s role is growing in complexity. They are still responsible for productivity and efficiency, as well as the meta-conversation about team workflow and strategy. In addition, their role is now evolving to include more and more mentoring and coaching; recognizing how to motivate, integrate differences and divergent information, and give people the space to optimize their own workflow and contribution to the team. This increase in complexity and accountability has a knock-on effect throughout an organization. Today’s director-level position must manage the same degree of complexity as the C-level position of 20 years ago, and the front line employee must be as competent in as wide a range of hard and soft skills as the manager of yesteryear. Given the increasing complexity of the economy as a whole, this should come as no surprise.
Which leads us to the value of coaching and development for all levels of an organization. Whether this is a dedicated internal function or something you outsource to an organization that specializes in it, investing in people development at all levels is becoming increasingly important. A quarter-century ago, having a coach was considered an eccentricity indulged in by only the most out-there leaders. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a CEO that doesn’t work with a coach at least periodically. It’s not just company leaders either. More and more organizations are investing in their people further down the org chart, whether in the form of individual coaching or course work. We believe that this type of investment will be essential to staying competitive in the years to come.
We have seen first-hand the value companies can get out of making coaching available to even frontline employees. Many of our clients make it possible for all of their employees to access development work. It has been instrumental in helping them with things like executing a complex new strategy, providing crucial support during times of disruption, or getting ahead of a problem rather than investing more time and energy to clean it up after the fact. In an age of serial disruption where the ability to reflect, learn, and course-correct are essential to survival, investment in building those skills is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
And more disruption is almost certainly coming. In our next post we’ll zoom out again to look at the bigger picture trends that are likely to shape the rest of the 2020’s, and the implications they have for business. Needless to say, we believe that those who embrace a complex, people-centered approach to management, and who are willing to make the extra investment in coaching and people development to ensure its success, will be best positioned to thrive in the times ahead.