Whether it’s having to manage unprecedented levels of remote working or the fact that increasing numbers of tasks are being automated, line managers are undergoing a time of sweeping change. Cath Everett looks at how the role is likely to evolve.
Even before ‘business as usual’ disappeared as organisations began to wrestle with the challenges of the coronavirus, the role of managers was in the midst of a shift.
Automation and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, will replace an eye-popping 69% of the average manager’s workload by 2024, according to predictions by Gartner.
The company predicts that many transactional activities, such as form-filling, updating information and approving workflows, will be undertaken by machines, leading to a significant shift in the managerial role.
Clearly, this shift will only speed up as a result of the current coronavirus situation, which is forcing organisations to adopt new ways of operating, including remote working, whether they like it or not.
“It’s acting as an accidental accelerator of digital change and how companies organise themselves,” says Sunnie Groeneveld, founder of digital transformation consultancy Inspire 925. “We’re being forced to answer questions that we’ve been putting off for a while – and so we’re going to need good leaders and managers more than ever.”
Making life easier?
Sari Wilde, a managing vice president at Gartner, argues that aspects of automation have begun to make managers’ lives easier: “Over the last few years, there’s been a surge in artificial intelligence (AI) applications dealing with everything from recruitment to learning and development (L&D), which are almost replacing the role of the manager, or at least making it easier.
“The 69% figure was one our modellers came up with based on lots of different inputs – but because the coronavirus situation is fundamentally changing the way people work and manage others today, the shift may now take place in less than four years.”
Others are not so sure though. While there is widespread agreement that the amount of mundane tasks managers are required to undertake is likely to drop, both the extent and timescales are subject to dispute.
The people side of management is often lost when people are busy, but in reality the soft side is where the value comes from.” – Kevin Green, NED and author
Kevin Green, non-executive director and strategy adviser for six human capital firms and author of ‘Competitive People Strategy’, says: “In terms of the direction of travel, I’d say Gartner are spot on, although I think they’re a bit overoptimistic about how quickly it’ll happen. I’d say it’s more like five to 10 years away as this is about businesses having to learn and adopt technology, which most aren’t very good at.”
Nonetheless, he believes that automating increasing numbers of routine tasks “sounds like good news” as it will enable managers to “focus on where they can add more value and extract more value for the business”.
“There’s a huge opportunity here and some will grasp it and others won’t,” Green says. “Some organisations will become more efficient by taking a percentage of their managers out, but personally I believe the management ratio should be left the same and the focus moved towards helping people do things more effectively.”
In fact, creating the time and space to do just that would appear to be a godsend for many hard-pressed managers.
According to a report entitled ‘The squeezed middle: Why HR should be hugging and not squeezing line managers’ by Dr Zofia Bajorek, a research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, all too many of them are experiencing growing work-related stress and pressure.
For example, there is now a widespread expectation that they undertake tasks such as performance management and implementing disciplinary procedures, previously the remit of HR. At the same time, senior leaders require them to set targets and bring organisational policies to life, while employees expect more personal support and feedback.
If more mundane tasks were automated though, managers would have more time to concentrate on the people and leadership side of things, which includes skills development and supporting employee wellbeing and resilience.
“The people side of management is often lost when people are busy, but in reality the soft side is where the value comes from, so things like creativity and innovation,” points out Green.
“It’s value-enhancing and it’s using people effectively to undertake the things that machines can’t do, such as coming up with ideas about how to do things differently.”
He believes that the ideal manager of the future will be comfortable communicating in a number of different ways and using a range of mediums as well as being able to understand the nuances of human behaviour and react appropriately.
They will also exhibit a base level of technical skills, enabling them to both use IT effectively and understand the opportunities afforded by emerging technologies to proactively take advantage of them.
Wilde, meanwhile, indicates that model managers will need to adopt what she describes as a “connector approach”. This means being upfront about their strengths and also those areas that require development.
But it likewise means diagnosing and understanding the needs of each member of their team in order to provide targeted feedback and coaching if suitable, or if not, to connect them to useful networks, information, resources and people, which include their own peers, to help them find the answers they need.
Such managers, which currently make up about 25% of the total leadership population, according to Gartner’s research, also tend to build teams that are more inclusive and diverse as they “embrace individual difference”, says Wilde.
In the opinion of Stephanie Davies, founder and chief executive of L&D consultancy Laughology, the actual management role itself will split over time into two separate disciplines: technical managers, who drive standards, oversee outcomes and support workers in skilling up in their own particular area of expertise; and people managers, who will focus on talent and performance management, employee engagement and the like.
“There’ll be less impetus to promote solely on the basis of longevity,” she says. “Managers will be more effective because they’ll be in the right roles and, in turn, teams will be more effective because they’ll be managed better.”
In other words, people management skills are only likely to grow in value over the next few years – although Davies believes that the term ‘manager’ is likely to become “defunct at some point too” to be replaced by terms, such as ‘expert’ and ‘coach’ instead.
These changes will also be made more probable, meanwhile, by the ongoing shift away from hierarchical, command-and-control management styles, where the focus has traditionally been on tasks, to more of a coaching and mentoring style in which employees are encouraged to make their own decisions.
“It often seems to people that technology will shape the narrative, but it’s not true. It’s up to managers.” – Sunnie Groeneveld, Inspire 925
The growing move towards project- and team-based working is likewise having an impact here too – although the creation of cross-functional teams and networks still requires someone to coordinate work and deliver outcomes.
“People may not be full-time line managers or even manage the same team all the time, but the leadership role will still exist,” points out Green.
In fact, such individuals will need to be able to demonstrate a wide range of management approaches depending on circumstances.
Groeneveld adds: “Managers will need to have an ambidextrous skill set in that some things will still have to cascade down from the top, which means they need to work in the hierarchical order, but in other situations, enabling networked teams will be more effective. So there’ll be a massive shift in what it means to be a good manager.”
As to how employers can best support them in making the necessary changes both now and in the years to come, Groeneveld believes the focus should not just be on reskilling, particularly on the soft skills side of the equation where techniques, such as coaching and mentoring, prove most effective.
Instead it should also be about encouraging people to see themselves as “life-long learners” in order to “ask the right questions in the light of emerging technologies”, she believes.
“It often seems to people that technology will shape the narrative, but it’s not true. It’s up to managers – they make the decisions on how much technology is part of the organisation and what they want to do with it, so as long as they’re still healthy, working from home may provide them with the time to look at the bigger picture and, ultimately, reset things,” Groeneveld concludes.