In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

2 thoughts on “In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

  1. Thanks Paul, as usual full of food for thought. But I don’t agree with the title, so perhaps I could offer a twist which still agrees with your sentiments.

    Management originated as apprentices to Craftsmon (using an ‘o’ instead of an ‘e’ to denote men and women). Some novices couldn’t quite cut the craft, so were used to assist the Craftsmon, by organising the tools and supplies and keeping the Craftsmon fed and watered. Some guilds even employed these Administrators (Latin ‘he that is near to attend’) to perform this organising role for a number of Craftsmon. When the Crafts started to become industrialised, the owners often employed a senior Craftsmon to oversee the others as Foreman (Latin ‘a man before others’). But they became quite militant in protecting the craft and one and other. So the owners started employing the Administrators directly: the rest is history. The owners and their contemporary organisational reincarnation as Leaderist, violated the role of Administrator drawing it into their preferred structure of command and control.

    The weak link is not the manager (administrator) as potentially they represent the answer to the current change. If that is, they are willing to accept and embody what management is actually all about. Not being in charge of the workers but being in charge of the space around the worker, providing the tools, supplies and making sure the workers are fed and watered (in our sense, payroll). You know I’m looking forward to the death of the Leaderism Ideology, but turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas. There’s a joke about Boris in there somewhere. Perhaps it’s the managers that can help the distributed workforce, be an even better force for work. Of course, that means you got to treasure the Craftsmon above everything else.

    1. Thanks for this as really adds something. I think I’ll fallen foul of the lure of the clickbait title. So yes, I agree with everything you’ve said and it possibly helps us get a bit more specific around what we mean. We often tend to lump people together in what appears to be a homogeneous group purely for the sake of convenient but unhelpful nomenclature.

      Being self critical my own organisation does this. We term as ‘leaders’ anyone who fulfills a management function at a very granular level. They could literally line manage one person.
      This huge group will also contain people with departments of 400. And if you’re an ‘influencer’ – great at collaboration and pulling people together around a problem – you’re not in this group at all if you don’t line manage anyone.

      So yes – treasuring the craftsmon is arguably the way forward as optimistic at it sounds. So thanks for destroying the title unless I change it to “The manager is the weak link now – but they could be the strongest!”

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