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What Does Remote Work Mean for Middle Managers?

There seems to be limited interest in middle management or the managers that occupy such positions among those who study management today. Go to Amazon or Google, for example, and check out the number of recent books on the subject. Good luck finding one.

As one author of a book titled Middle Management 101 puts it: A person on this rung of the corporate ladder is “the most misunderstood, misdirected, misguided, poorly trained, and ‘hung out to dry’ member of our entire work force.”

One could make the case that middle management has been under attack and on the defensive for years. Organizations have been delayering—eliminating middle management jobs—to try to be more agile, with faster decision making and execution. Downsizing in the name of economies of scale has hit middle management hard.

Some regard middle managers as a source of friction in the pursuit of the faster, smoother, more responsive, cross-functional process design that characterized Michael Hammer’s and James Champy’s pathbreaking work in the early 1990s.

However, one could also make the argument that middle managers have the most complex jobs in an organization. They have immediate bosses and peers, something (including boards in some organizations) that CEOs don’t have to worry so much about.

In fact, middle managers are often blamed when problems arise. Some leaders say that middle managers obstruct effective top-down communication and hesitate to transmit negative bottom-up information, creating surprises for top management. That claim was part of the defense used by top management in the Wells Fargo customer fraud scandal.

Even academics are loath to probe middle management. A 1993 study about middle management by Jack Gabarro and John Kotter focused on “the process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company.” However, it didn’t trigger the amount of follow-on research that the subject deserved after early interest in the topic died down.

“WE PROBABLY SPEND LESS TIME THESE DAYS RESEARCHING ARMIES OF MIDDLE MANAGERS THAN WE SPEND STUDYING A HANDFUL OF CEOS.”

We probably spend less time these days researching armies of middle managers than we spend studying a handful of CEOs. CEOs are more interesting because their primary role is to effect change. Middle managers are often characterized as managing the execution of existing policies and practices to pursue goals often set by others. Middle managers lead smaller numbers of associates but with more intense interaction, requiring them to balance organization behavior and larger strategic issues.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic came along, accelerating a trend toward work-from-anywhere policies that were already proliferating. The crisis required all of us to retreat from the offices from which we practiced our leadership and management crafts. We had to find new ways to communicate; fortunately, the tools were already available through our computers and phones. Remote work has given top leaders incentives to use these communication technologies to not only communicate with every individual in the organization but even meet their pets and check out their living spaces for the first time.

In many cases, middle managers have become less visible to those reporting to them, just one more recipient of top management messages. The notions of “chain of command” with step-wise reporting or the “cascading of ideas” down through the organization have, in some cases, been put aside.

Have the technology and changing organizational relationships associated with remote work made the middle manager’s role less necessary? Can much of what middle managers do be replaced by artificial intelligence?

Can companies that compete based on cost afford to expand or even retain previous numbers of middle managers? Or do work-from-anywhere policies make middle managers more critical than ever in coaching, mentoring, advising, and overseeing people working away from an office setting? If the latter, are middle managers getting the training and support necessary to help them succeed in this new management environment?

 

By James Heskett- Harvard Business School

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