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The Blinkered Boss: Management changed for good and bad with the shift to virtual work
New research looks at how the pandemic's shift to virtual work impacted managers and presents five recommendations for the approaching hybrid workplace
With the pandemic receding, we are starting to see the first wave of research about how the crisis affected workplaces. There is, naturally, a tendency to focus that research on the experience of workers, and this focus has already produced excellent analyses, including productivity calculations and documentation of employee burnout. A new paper from Julian Birkinshaw (London Business School), Maya Gudka, and Vittorio D’Amato (LIUC Cattaneo) focuses on the less common topic of how managers fared during the pandemic, and it sheds an interesting first light on the experiences of the people tasked with coordinating and managing work during the pandemic.
To understand the manager experience during the pandemic, the researchers conducted three studies with various groups of middle managers, the results of which they compared with similar findings gathered pre-crisis. The first study looked at the effectiveness of managers during 2020. In this phase, the team surveyed 82 managers in various industries (education, marketing, media, accounting, technology, science, finance, and the public sector) — all college graduates — in the fall of 2020. The survey “asked respondents how effective they were in a wide range of managerial activities, such as analyzing the task environment, motivating employees, and decision making.”
The second study examined how 40 similar managers allocated their time after transferring their work from offices to homes, “with an emphasis on why particular tasks or activities were chosen and how important they were.” The third study focused on the learning and development activities of managers in 2020. This survey built on a previous survey on the same topic completed in late 2019 with 497 managers (all alumni from a leading business school) who answered questions on how effective they were in managing their own professional development. 38 members of this original group were interviewed again. Lastly, in addition to the three surveys, the authors also conducted 20 personal interviews to “gain qualitative insights into how their work had changed since March 2020.”
After analyzing the perspectives shared by all respondents, the authors see a mixed picture. Interestingly, managers give themselves higher marks during the pandemic (than pre-crisis) in the cognitive aspects of their work (i.e., problem-solving, analyses, and time management). “While these [aspects] received among the lowest ratings in the office-based environment,” note the authors, “they were the highest-rated in the virtual context.” The authors hypothesize that “working virtually means fewer interruptions and therefore more opportunity to focus,” noting that some respondents said that “the virtual environment—especially during lockdown— encouraged greater personal reflection and legitimized introverted behavior.”
The managers also believe that they performed better in “the task-oriented aspects of their work in the virtual environment, though some of these differences were significant and others were not.” The authors conclude that this perception “is consistent with the sense of urgency that many organizations felt during the summer of 2020, and it suggests that many aspects of the manager’s job can be done as well remotely as in person.”
In contrast to the high marks given to cognitive and task-focused work, the managers felt that the people-focused aspects of their work fared poorly during the pandemic. “While fully aware of the importance of motivating and helping their subordinates,” note the authors, “the respondents rated their effectiveness as low — both relative to the equivalent ratings from 2018 and relative to the scores for the cognitive and task-focused domains of work.”
“My relationship with team members has definitely suffered,” explained one respondent, “because I have so much to deal with myself.” The lack of time and space to coach new hires (or people moving into new roles) was a common problem for managers. Many of them expressed frustration with tasks such as onboarding new team members and providing adequate performance feedback and guidance. “You cannot challenge a person so well over Zoom,” said one manager, so “you tend to hold back.” Another respondent mentioned that “performance reviews in their organization had been put entirely on hold during the first wave of the Covid pandemic, again because of the challenges of doing it well.”
In addition to the people-centric parts of their work, managers gave themselves low scores for innovation and creativity. As one manager noted:
It’s a lot harder to create the kind of spontaneous discussion which results in ideas. I’ve tried to use WhatsApp to create more free discussions for each issue, getting groups of key people together on a particular problem. But then I’ve woken up to endless chats that I need to read through if I want to be able to contribute anything. It takes up far more energy. For an extrovert like me, I find the whole thing much harder than just being in the office and enjoying the energy of my team to create solutions.
In sum, as shown in Figure 1 below, “the picture that emerged from this analysis was a shift in emphasis toward personal reflection and task-based action, and away from the relational, employee-engagement narrative of recent decades.”
Figure 1: Effectiveness of management tasks in office and virtual workplaces (Source: Authors)
Indeed, the data presents managerial cohorts experiencing a more structured working day, often lacking the spontaneous experiences that a productive office environment can produce. As presented in Figure 1, managers working virtually “were spending significantly less time in internal meetings with colleagues and significantly more time on externally facing activities such as with clients.” This suggests to the authors that the managers “were becoming more efficient in their use of time, in that they were being more discerning about the meetings they chose to take part in.” Second, managers saw their role and work as more critical during the pandemic than before it.” For example, “managers rated 78% of their activities as essential or important in 2020, compared with 56% in the earlier study; and when asked if there was scope for delegating or outsourcing to others, they said 72% of their work in 2020 could only be done by them, compared with 58% before.”
Of course, the crisis did make managers critical to maintaining work functions. But the authors believe that “there also appears to be some self-justification here, in that greater freedom to choose what you do (i.e., when working from home) makes you more likely to believe it to be worthwhile.” More importantly, the authors make the novel observation that “with the move into a virtual working environment, the immediate levers of influence managers have to play with are fewer in number.” In this setting, managers deal with employees much as they typically deal with contractors. In other words, rather than managing through an in-person/high-interaction/manager-employee model, the pandemic made managers adopt a “contracting and reviewing” approach that focused more on end-products and “deliverables” than on personal relationships.
Figure 2: The evolution of management—Four models. (Source: Authors)
The authors illustrate the preceding point graphically in Figure 2, noting that “at the time of the research, managers were stuck somewhere between quadrant C and quadrant D, with good intentions to emphasize the people-management aspects of their role but often struggling to deliver on those intentions.” To some degree, note the authors, “responsibility for getting this right lies with individual managers, who are expected to be creative in adapting to their new circumstances.” That said, responsibility for the problem also lies with the bureaucratic systems that increased the pressure on managers during the pandemic, often with very little support. It is not surprising, conclude the authors, so many managers “seemed somewhat ‘blinkered’ in how they responded.”
The authors concede that their sample numbers are small and that this is but a preliminary analysis of this topic. Nonetheless, based on their conclusions from current and past research, the authors do offer a series of recommendations to managers to improve their performance in working environments that will likely continue to feature virtual work.
1: Harness the freedom afforded by virtual working.
Virtual work does have its upsides — such as increased autonomy and more time for focused work — so managers should strive to maximize these activities when working virtually whenever possible.
2: Make use of all possible levers of influence.
Virtual work removes many "informal levers of influence," note the authors, " so learning how to replicate or adapt these informal levers to the virtual environment is important." Instant messaging platforms can be useful but knowing when to leave them for live communications is critical.
3: Design your hybrid working arrangements carefully.
As the pandemic comes to a close, resist the temptation to leave home v. office decisions to individual employees. "Our research," note the authors, "suggests some clear top-down guidance would be prudent in such circumstances to ensure that time in the office is spent on the most value-added activities.”
“I used to think of the office as the place to get tasks done and home as the place for social stuff, " noted one respondent; "now it’s the exact opposite.” As with this manager, reflect on all the lessons learned from the pandemic and apply them to future work arrangements consistently.
4: Actively create development pathways for managers.
Anecdotal findings and serious research agree that the pandemic took a heavy toll on personal development and growth. As managers return to work, they should emphasize creating new learning and mentoring opportunities (for their people and themselves) to make up for the last year of lost time.
The authors close their paper by observing that "without access to the usual levers of influence, they [managers] have to become more proactive and disciplined in how they spend their time to get the best out of others, and they have to be more thoughtful about the structures they put in place to enable effective collaboration.” With hybrid models set to continue into the near future, managers now face the complex task of developing flexible and dynamic management models that deal equally well with in-person staff and remote workers. In other words, if work is going to be hybrid, then so must management. In the past, this way of managing was familiar to managers used to working with Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms and in creative freelance-driven industries. For the foreseeable future, managers would do well to heed the suggestions of this interesting paper and start to envision not just a new working model for their teams but also a new management model for themselves.
Birkinshaw J, Gudka M, D’Amato V. The Blinkered Boss: How Has Managerial Behavior Changed with the Shift to Virtual Working? California Management Review. June 2021. doi:10.1177/00081256211025823