Call me Debbie Downer if you must, but it’s my view that it’s never been more difficult to be a boss than right now. That might sound counterintuitive in light of the recent good news about the pandemic subsiding, the U.S. “re-opening” and the economy improving. Aren’t things in the workplace returning to pre-pandemic “normal?”
In some ways, the answer is yes and businesses are finding themselves with customers flush with cash and eager to spend it after a year of lockdowns and distancing. It’s boomtown for many industries. And many folks are starting to find their way back to the office or place of business. But for many workplaces the getting back to “normal” is anything but normal and managers are in the middle of it.
The truth is that successfully leading and managing others has never been easy. I know — I directly led/managed others in several industries for over 15 years and ran my own business for four years. In “normal” times it can be deeply satisfying but there are elements of the job that can also be highly challenging and undesirable. Does anyone really enjoy having to conduct 8–10 performance reviews in a week’s time? And who likes to downsize?
These past 15 months of pandemic pandemonium have been tough on many in the workforce but especially difficult for those who lead/manage others or who run their own small business. And as challenging as it’s been during the contagion to be responsible for others, I think the dynamics that are currently unfolding will make it even more so.
That’s right — for leaders/managers and business owners, it’s probably going to get even tougher. We are passing through some turbulence and the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign just went on.
Consider some of 2021’s emerging challenges for managers and small business owners:
- Workplace masking issues (employees and customers);
- Vaccination issues (balancing the needs and “rights” of the haves and have-not’s);
- Balancing needs and wants of the business and employees regarding working from home (WFH) vs. at the office and figuring out possible “hybrid” arrangements;
- Supply chain shortages and cost increases;
- The retention of valuable employees in this period of labor shortages — many employees can and might walk away tomorrow, especially if not provided with a WFH option. Others, especially in the hospitality industry, might never come back;
- The lack of qualified or even interested applicants for job openings;
- Uncertainty about whether to downsize the workplace footprint if migrating to more WFH;
- Emerging social justice issues and the politicization of just about everything, which can spill over into the workplace;
- For middle managers, whose job is really one of strategy execution, navigating and sometimes even negotiating the disconnects between the perspectives/priorities of those at the top and the perspectives/priorities of those at “the bottom” who actually do the work that brings in the revenue.
If you are a manager or an executive you can probably add 10 more items to that list. Ahh…The glamor of being in charge.
There is ample evidence that in this time of “the great reopening” employees are reassessing their lives, their jobs, their careers. And they are also reassessing their employers. And that’s making it especially challenging for managers to ensure their team members are not only productive but engaged and committed. But in 2021 many employees seem to be embracing the declaration of Johnny Paycheck in his 1977 song “Take this job and shove it!”
Several recently released studies point to this phenomenon. One of them was a global survey of 30,000 people conducted by Microsoft: Work Trend Index. This research found that 41 per cent of those surveyed said they’re considering leaving their jobs. Additionally, the data found:
- Burnout is widespread — 54% of employees said they are overworked and 39% said they were “exhausted.”
- 37% of the global workforce said their companies are asking too much of them at a time like this.
- Digital overload is real and climbing. From data gathered from their own digital tools like Microsoft Teams, Chat and Microsoft Office document activity, time spent in meetings and chats has increased dramatically and email usage is up as well.
There’s a joke circulating in social media that says that Amazon was the first company that adopted the hybrid model for working: Be at the office from Monday to Friday and work from home on Saturday and Sunday. Being in pandemic mode for so long has compelled many employees to reflect on their values and what’s truly important to them. And what we are seeing is an ascendancy of the importance of quality of life.
If you are a manager, then, how do you engage people if they believe their basic needs (in a Maslowian sense) are not being met? See my 2020 article which relates Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” with employee engagement. And how do you balance that with what the customer wants or what corporate wants?
Another recently published study about the state of the workplace was sponsored by Bloomberg and found — perhaps no surprise — that 39% of respondents would consider quitting if their employer was not flexible about offering them the opportunity to work remotely. That figure was 49% for millennials and Gen Z respondents.
Yet, among senior managers in the survey, nearly 2/3 indicated they think three days or more per week in the office are needed to “maintain company culture.” Do the math. That’s a huge chasm in terms of values and perspectives. And expectations.
It seems that more than ever senior management’s perceived needs of the business are at odds with employees’ perceived self-interests. The unforeseen consequences of the pandemic have hit reset buttons everywhere. It’s as if many employees have adopted Marie Kondo’s popular approach of assessing whether something “brings you joy” and if it doesn’t, to dispose of it. When employees apply this principle to their jobs, they discover that there are indeed things about a job — such as the daily commute — that do not “bring joy.” So people start looking at alternative jobs or new employers.
The combo of Johnny Paycheck + Marie Kondo is creating headaches for managers…
And managers/owners have to figure out how to run a business within this zeitgeist of an evolving “new normal.” An article in the June 5 New York Times about a new sense of “worker leverage” says it this way: “In effect, an entire generation of managers that came of age in an era of abundant workers is being forced to learn how to operate amid labor scarcity. That means different things for different companies and workers — and often involves strategies more elaborate than simply paying a signing bonus or a higher hourly wage.”
More money certainly helps, but it’s more than about the money. I’m sure that even Solomon would be perplexed about what to do.
It’s likely that some readers, having read the above litany of post-pandemic hardships and challenges lain at managements’ feet don’t feel much sympathy for the plight of the leader. “That’s why they get paid the big bucks!” some might say. Others would aver, “Serves them right — most bosses are jerks anyway.”
Consider this perspective: Remember, managers are employees too and most of them value engagement in their own role or position. They want to feel good about what they do. Most leaders I have worked with and worked for did not get into management because they have some deep-seated yearning for control over others. Many of them derive satisfaction from getting results from their team members rather than being a “doer” themselves and at the same time developing those team members to take on increasingly more responsible roles.
And while I haven’t seen any 2021 data about the level of manager/leader engagement I have to think it is overall not very good. Do a web search on “employee engagement” — most of the articles and advertisements focus on the responsibility of the manager to make sure their employees feel authentically engaged.
By the way, it’s true — most managers have the means to impact employee engagement by the way they lead, the way they communicate. The way they can empower. They can create conditions that can move the needle on their employees’ engagement. It’s hard work. It’s art and science.
But who’s working equally hard at more senior levels in organizations to monitor and to improve employee engagement for managers? Who’s working hard to ensure their sense of well-being and for acknowledging their anxieties, their stress? And for their work/life balance? I learned long ago that if we want managers to be intentional about engaging the members of their teams, we better make sure the managers themselves feel a healthy sense of engagement and commitment.
How can we expect a manager to be an effective delegator to others if they have not experienced it first-hand themselves from their leader? It’s a cascading principle. If we want managers to delegate to and empower others, we better make sure those managers themselves experience delegation and empowerment from their bosses. Otherwise, it won’t be very high on their set of priorities despite what’s in the company’s value statements.
Managers need appreciation from above for who they are and for the difficult work they do. Like all other employees, they need to be shown respect. They need to be listened to and empathized with and pulled even more into the decision-making process. They are senior management’s link to the employee base and these are the times that call for an engaged, empowered, and motivated management team from top to bottom.
Otherwise, we just might see an exodus of not just rank-and-file employees changing jobs or employers, we’ll see it at the leader level also. There are many retirement-eligible managers who secretly embrace Johnny Paycheck’s call to action.
It’s never been more difficult to be a manager than now.
About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.