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Hybrid or office working symbol. Turned wooden cubes and changed words 'office working' to 'hybrid working

The impact of home and hybrid working on effective line management

Home and hybrid working has made it harder for those new to line management to build a sense of team and monitor individual performance, and has also robbed line managers of valuable exposure to everyday manager-team interactions from which to learn.

I’ve come into work for three days this week and it’s been fun meeting people over an extended period of time – these days it’s rare that I go into the office more than once a week. Since I joined Roffey Park Institute last September my official place of work is home so I’m probably at the more extreme end of hybrid working with an 80/20 split of home/office. Obviously there are many jobs where hybrid or home working just isn’t possible but for those of us who can it’s been transformational.

Being able to work from home has so many advantages, for example, I’m engaged in some CPD training at the moment (online), and so, in typical student fashion I ended up having to work well into the evening to write the slides for an assessment with a pressing deadline. As Programme Director for Roffey Park’s MSc People and Organisational Development, I then had an 8am lecture the following morning, but it was all very manageable despite the late finish the previous evening because my lecture was online, with only the commute from my bedroom to my study. I could get up at the civilised time of 7am and still be in good time for an 8am start. In the old all face-to-face days I would have been faced with a 6am alarm, which I find tough when you’ve finished work late the previous evening.

But what might work for me, heading towards the end of my career, may not work so well for a new generation of line managers. I’ve just finished a piece of research on first level line management recently published as a Roffey Park White Paper called What is Effective Line Management?. We found that first level line managers are facing a bit of a double whammy when it comes to hybrid working. Firstly just being a manager of a hybrid team seems to be more challenging than the “old days” of the office. It’s harder to manage people, to have difficult conversations, to delegate, to keep people on track to deliver the performance required and so on, when you mainly interact with them online.

But our research highlighted a second problem of hybrid working for those new to line management, that it’s harder to learn how to manage in a hybrid workplace. That’s because the opportunities to observe other managers in action are less abundant, and the hybrid line manager may interact less with their own manager and with other managers across a workplace. It’s harder to pick up the tacit knowledge so important for learning about being a good manager. That’s not to say that it’s impossible – far from it – but a new line manager may feel isolated and unsure how to put newly learnt line management skills into practice. This could explain the crisis of inner confidence and the feelings of imposter syndrome experienced by first level line managers that we picked up on in the research.

But it’s not just hybrid working that’s causing problems for those new to line management. Societal changes, emerging well before COVID, have impacted on organisations. Identity politics, mental health and concerns about the impact of work on well-being, mean that effective management is more tricky to achieve in practice.  Add to that the much-welcomed push to improve equality, creating a more diverse workforce and more inclusive organisations and you begin to see that effective line management requires an assured touch.

But just at a time when first level line managers need that self-assurance, they feel it less. Even though we found that the basic skills of first level line management – delegation, time management and being able to motivate teams – remain the same, it’s more challenging to put them into practice in more politicised and sensitised workplace cultures. What’s more, effective management has a huge impact on an organisation’s productivity. Whilst reading the Sunday paper recently, a statistic on the impact of management stopped me in my tracks. Phillip Inman quotes John van Reenen’s ongoing research which suggests that up to a third of the productivity gap, whether between countries or between companies, could be attributed to management. And I noticed that van Reenen and his colleagues Erik Brynjolfsson and Nicholas Bloom produced a piece of work last year that asserts that good management predicts a firm’s success better than IT, R&D or even employee skills. Wow – that’s some claim about the impact of effective management.

Today’s workplaces represent a significant challenge for first level line managers but organisations that help them manage this tricky terrain will find a positive impact on their organisation’s success. A re-think of the training, development and support for first level line managers will go a long way to addressing these problems. And the technology that enabled online work when we had to isolate, also may assist in addressing the challenges that first level line managers face in a cost effective manner. Taking some of the training into the online environment, whilst freeing up resources for some face-to-face context work – will develop a sense of mastery and confidence through practice and reflection.

But what is the right balance of virtual and in-person learning to support today’s new first level line managers? The debate about virtual and face-to-face, synchronous and asynchronous (live and recorded/pre-written input) learning actually covers some well-established ground. Since the earliest times when marks were imprinted into a piece of clay human beings have been communicating remotely and asynchronously. A book is a brilliant piece of technology that conveys ideas and information asynchronously. But we would probably say that whilst the best management texts can tell us a lot, it’s probably unwise to leave the training of managers to ‘here’s a good book, read that’. But then again no one would seriously advocate that the only way mangers could acquire the skills to do their job well is to experience face to face education and training. 

Today’s new first level line managers deserve training and development that can cover the basic skills of line management and the higher order competences that underpin assured practice. Organisations that invest in them and explore the cost effective opportunities that combine virtual and face-to-face learning opportunities are likely to experience the positive impact of effective management.

Roffey Park’s latest research whitepaper – What is Effective Line Management? – is available to download free of charge.

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