Managers used to be selected and promoted largely based on their ability to manage and evaluate the performance of employees who could carry out a particular set of tasks. But three disruptive, transformative trends are challenging traditional definitions of the manager role: Normalization of remote work, automation, and changing employee expectations. These three trends have culminated in a new era of management where it’s less important to see what employees are doing and more important to understand how they feel. To be successful in this new environment, managers must lead with empathy. This will require organizations and their HR functions to develop their managers’ skills, awaken their mindsets to manage in new ways, and create the capacity across the organization to enable this shift. The authors present a holistic strategy that invests in all three of those strategies.
A year into the pandemic, the implications of how Covid-19 has changed how people will work from now on are becoming clear. Many employees will be working in a hybrid world with more choices about where, when, and how much they work. For midsize companies specifically, Gartner analysis shows that 46% of the workforce is projected to be working hybrid in the near future.
To better understand the impact of Covid-19 on the future of work, we surveyed 3,049 knowledge workers and their managers across onsite, remote, and hybrid work contexts, as well as 75 HR leaders, including 20 leaders from midsize companies. Except where indicated, our findings come from these 2021 surveys.
Managers used to be selected and promoted largely based on their ability to manage and evaluate the performance of employees who could carry out a particular set of tasks. Within the last five years, HR executives started to hire and develop managers who were poised to be great coaches and teachers. But the assumption that coaching should be the primary function of management has been tested since the pandemic began. Three disruptive, transformative trends are challenging traditional definitions of the manager role:
Normalization of remote work. As both employees and managers have become more distributed, their relationships to one another have also become more asynchronous. Gartner estimates that in more than 70% of manager-employee relationships, either the manager or the employee will be working remotely at least some of the time. This means that employees and their managers will be less likely to be working on the same things at the same time. Managers will have dramatically less visibility into the realities of their employees’ day-to-day and will begin to focus more on their outputs and less on the processes used to produce them.
Acceleration in use of technology to manage employees. More than one in four companies have invested in new technology to monitor their remote employees during the pandemic. Companies have been buying scheduling software, AI-enabled expense-report auditing tools, and even technologies to replace manager feedback using AI. While companies have been focused on how technology can automate employee tasks, it can just as effectively replace the tasks of managers. At the extreme, by 2024, new technologies have the potential to replace as much as 69% of the tasks historically done by managers, such as assigning work and nudging productivity.
Employees’ changing expectations. As companies have expanded the support they offer to their employees in areas like mental health and child care during the pandemic, the relationships between employees and their managers have started to shift to be more emotional and supportive. Knowledge workers now expect their managers to be part of their support system to help them improve their life experience, rather than just their employee experience.
When managerial tasks are replaced by technology, managers aren’t needed to manage workflows. When interactions become primarily virtual, managers can no longer rely on what they see to manage performance, and when relationships become more emotional, they can no longer limit the relationship to the sphere of work. These three trends have culminated in a new era of management where it’s less important to see what employees are doing and more important to understand how they feel.
Radical flexibility requires empathetic managers
To be successful in this new environment, managers must lead with empathy. In a 2021 Gartner survey of 4,787 global employees assessing the evolving role of management, only 47% of managers are prepared for this future role. The most effective managers of the future will be those who build fundamentally different relationships with their employees.
Empathy is nothing new. It’s a common term in the philosophy of good leadership, but it has yet to be a top management priority. The empathic manager is someone who can contextualize performance and behavior — who transcends simply understanding the facts of work and proactively asks questions and seeks information to place themselves in their direct reports’ contexts.
Empathy requires developing high levels of trust and care and a culture of acceptance within teams. This is a lot to ask of any individual: that they ask questions that produce vulnerable answers without compromising trust, diagnose the root cause of an employee’s behavior without making assumptions, and demonstrate the social-emotional intelligence necessary to imagine another’s feelings.
Empathy isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. In fact, in that same survey, 85% of HR leaders at midsize companies agreed that it’s more important now for managers to demonstrate empathy than it was before the pandemic. Further Gartner analysis shows that managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels of empathy. Employees at organizations with high levels of empathy-based management are more than twice as likely to agree that their work environment is inclusive.
Creating a new workforce of empathic managers is especially difficult for midsize companies. While larger companies can earmark billions of dollars for learning and development for massive workforce transformation, smaller companies are more fiscally constrained and don’t have the same resources. Midsize companies also often don’t have the scale to create a managerial class within their workforce — they need managers to be both managers and doers.
Midsize companies need to find solutions to develop more empathic managers without massive investments and continue to have those managers work rather than just manage. This will require organizations and their HR functions to develop their managers’ skills, awaken their mindsets to manage in new ways, and create the capacity across the organization to enable this shift. Here’s how to adopt a holistic strategy that invests in all three of those strategies.
Develop empathy skills through vulnerable conversation practice
Asking managers to lead with empathy can be intimidating. Many managers understand empathy conceptually but aren’t sure how to use it as a management tool: Are these questions too personal? How do I create a trusting relationship with my direct reports? Is caring acceptable at work? How do I talk about social justice? It goes against deeply ingrained assumptions that we should keep work and life separate. Managers need opportunities to practice — and, crucially, room to make mistakes — in order to learn to lead with empathy. Unfortunately, only 52% of 31 learning and development leaders polled in May 2020 report that they’re increasing their focus on soft skills.
To build empathy, Zillow creates cohorts of managers across the organization who engage in rotating one-on-one conversations with their peers to troubleshoot current managerial challenges. These conversations offer frequent, psychologically safe opportunities to engage in vulnerable conversations focused on how managers can commit to specific actions to care for themselves, as well as support the well-being of their team. Managers are able to practice their empathy with their peers, asking specific questions to understand their challenges and articulating their own circumstances in response to probes. Importantly, these types of conversations offer managers the opportunity to fail — and in a safe space — which is an opportunity rarely given to figures of authority. They also help managers feel less isolated by practicing empathy with peers, who are less likely to pass judgment.
Empower a new manager mindset by creating a network of support
According to our 2021 survey of 4,787 global employees, 75% of HR leaders from midsize companies agree that managers’ roles have expanded, yet roles and teams are not structured to support well-being.
Goodway Group, a fully remote company since 2007, knows that the best business results and purpose for work happens within teams and that distributed teams face greater challenges with communication and shared visibility. Goodway created a dedicated role, the team success partner, whose responsibilities include fostering trust and psychological safety and supporting team health. Managers work with team success partners to respond to the unique challenges distributed employees are facing; this includes facilitating remote psychologically safe remote conversations and supporting new team member assimilation.
Managers’ motivation to be empathic increases when they have a support system that makes it clear that the burden isn’t theirs alone and when organizations invest in roles designed to support them.
Create manager capacity for empathy by optimizing reporting lines
Managers are already overburdened by the demands of the evolving work environment, and actions that drive empathy are time consuming. While 70% of midsize HR leaders agree managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, only 16% of midsize organizations have redefined the manager role to reduce the number of responsibilities on their plate.
Recognizing the pressure on managers to maintain team connectedness in a remote environment, leaders at Urgently, a digital roadside assistance company, rebalanced their managers’ workloads. When managers have a team size they can handle, they’re able to dedicate time to fostering deeper connections and responding with empathy. Moving to a hybrid environment creates complexity; one key part of the solution is to help managers prioritize their workload to focus on fewer, higher-impact relationships with individuals and teams.
Organizations that equip managers to be empathic by holistically addressing the three common barriers — skill, mindset, and capacity — will achieve outsized returns on performance in the post-Covid-19 world.