With work teams going remote, what has changed for managers—and what hasn’t?
By Stephanie Argentine
Throughout his career, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen produced groundbreaking management insights, including his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. But when he died earlier this year, the quote we saw most often was, “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. … No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”
In the University at Buffalo School of Management, I teach a graduate-level hybrid course nicknamed “The Future of Work,” Christensen’s concept of “disruption”—how the future will disrupt the role of the manager—is topical right now.
Here’s the punchline: I don’t think the future will change the role of the manager. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the future will change a lot of things—we are seeing that right now. But the critical work of managers—why we have them and what we need them to do—won’t change, at least not in my opinion.
This is because the role of a manager is based on our needs as humans, and humans don’t evolve as fast as work and the workplace do. That means, for the foreseeable future, the role of the manager will be the same tomorrow as it is today. And with the coronavirus crisis forcing our swift, wholesale move to remote and virtual work, it’s important to recognize that what employees need from us as managers hasn’t really changed.
Now that I’ve given away my punchline, what is the critical work of a manager?
You can count our key duties as managers on one hand—let’s call them the five C’s.
- Communicate – the vision and strategies of the company, the direction and goals of the department, and in times of crisis, what we know and don’t know. Leadership teams are hopefully providing some key messages you can share and cascade to your team, but if not, communicate anyway. Find out what employees want and need to know, and communicate that up, so you can later clarify and answer questions.
- Clarify – I firmly believe that almost no one shows up to work thinking, “I am really going to screw this up today.” (The business bestseller on this has already been written—it’s Dan Pink’s Drive.) As managers, it is up to us to clarify what good looks like. What do we expect? What do our clients, customers or internal colleagues need from us? If employees are not doing what is needed or expected, managers must clarify and ensure understanding.
- Coach – In 2005, the CEB Corporate Leadership Council produced a report, “Managing for High Performance and Retention,” that looked at the 10 most impactful behaviors managers could demonstrate. At least five of them could arguably be grouped as coaching: providing recognition and feedback; helping employees find solutions to challenges; amplifying good and filtering out bad aspects of organizational culture; and coaching employees in their growth and career development. We know from research on engagement that employees value and crave feedback on their performance (see, for example, Gallup research showing negative feedback is better than being ignored, and Teresa Amabile’s The Progress Principle). They want to make progress and have an impact. Our job as managers is to provide coaching so they can.
- Connect – Connections are powerful. I love connecting people to other people and ideas to other ideas. For managers, the connection role is critical—we help our team see how their work connects to the greater whole. We keep our team connected and help them see their collective purpose. We can connect employees within our company and network. We can (and should) connect employees to, and sponsor them for, growth opportunities—both projects and new roles, particularly those aligned with their interests and aspirations.
- Customize – We need to understand the unique characteristics of each member of our team and customize, tailor and adapt how we support each team member in a way that works for them and for us. If you are struggling with how to do this, read Ken Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. It’s a simple and straightforward business fable that gives two basic frames for delegating and follow-up: “Act and then advise” or “Recommend and then act.“ Depending on the characteristics of the individual and the task, managers must adapt how they delegate and follow up.
Right now, many managers are attempting to guide their teams after going fully remote in the space of about a week. But none of the duties or work of a manager has changed. The “what” is the same, and I am confident that if you have been doing this, you will keep doing it. Only the “how” will have changed.
And if you haven’t been doing this, now is the time to start. Your team needs you to:
- Communicate about what is happening (more frequently and with more time for questions)
- Clarify (in smaller chunks about the most critical work)
- Coach them (as things change rapidly)
- Connect them to you and each other (while they enjoy an opportunity to connect with their family and those they live with)
- Customize your approach to their individual characteristics (the background of their home, sounds you hear when they take a call, challenges they face on the home front)
After a career in law, academia and labor relations, Stephanie Argentine worked in senior-level HR roles for two global organizations, partnering with senior leadership on strategy. Today, she is an adjunct instructor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management and an executive in residence for the school’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness. In those roles, she teaches courses on executive presence, leadership and the future of work, helping to create more effective leaders and organizations.