Middle managers are exhausted. They’ve lately been tasked with enforcing return-to-office plans, ramping up productivity in the face of a faltering economy, responding to layoff anxiety among their teams, communicating company stances on social and political issues, shouldering greater responsibility for the wellbeing of their teams, and fielding numerous other complexities. In Future Forum’s latest pulse report, some 43% of managers described themselves as burned out, more than both individual contributors and more senior leaders.

To understand the evolving pressures on middle managers and how workplaces can mitigate them, we reached out to Cara Allamano, chief people officer at the people-management software company Lattice. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity:

How has the role of the middle manager changed over the past few years?

The middle manager's role has definitely broadened and deepened in the past two and a half years. The pandemic was the initial catalyst for that, and then moving into all the social justice movements that we have. And then with this move to remote and hybrid, it really expanded the expectations of the manager beyond just the time that people are in the office and the boundaries that literal physical space allowed for. A lot of individual employees’ lives were changed dramatically. That obviously affects their work and the needs that they have in that work, and how they bridge the rest of their life and the work life that they have. So definitely there’s been an expansion laterally into these different areas of people's lives.

And coaching, not just in the work, but in how to balance work in life and how to integrate. Before it was about balance: How do you get to a point where you can clear your day and focus on your work? And the manager as coach could really help with that. Now it's much more about integrating, and when you're talking about integrating work and life, that's a much bigger conversation and it can go a lot deeper. So I found that the depth of those relationships has expanded as well. Which, by the way, is a huge ask for individuals that are already trying to manage through a lot of stressors from a business perspective, as well as a huge evolution in how we work.

The move to a more digital-first environment—we haven't necessarily recognized that that requires new skill sets and new behaviors and moving to significantly more asynchronous work. We've seen a ton of that at Lattice. We as a business grew immensely because we had a ton of companies coming and saying, ‘Well, we used to just do this manually on paper or with Google Docs or whatever we had. And now we can't do that, because with everybody at home, we have to have a much more organized, much more structured process.’ So it’s a whole different world out there, and a whole lot of new challenges for leaders.

Can you say more about how workplaces becoming more involved in social issues has changed the expectations of managers?

For leaders that are in organizations that have a strong position from a social justice standpoint, inevitably lots of conversations are needed among team members to help them understand those types of positions, to understand expectations about where they are personally versus where the organization might be. And a lot of managers are helping people navigate emotion around how they feel about these things.

We also have the opposite, with some organizations that haven't taken stands around social justice issues. That's work as well for a manager who has a team that has a perspective on that. Maybe there's some conflict, or maybe there's some challenge with wanting an organization to take a certain position. It becomes a much more personal conversation, and personal conversations need to be one on one with your manager. It's one thing for a CEO or board of directors to come out and say, ‘This is our position.’ It's another thing for a manager to really be able to help an employee personalize that and understand what that means for them in their role.

You mentioned that there hasn't really been that recognition that hybrid work requires new skills and behaviors from managers. What do those look like?

For a long time we were in crisis mode, and it was any means necessary to get the work done. During those periods, you can build some bad habits around how you work, but you're willing to push through because you don't have other choices. The good news is now I believe there are many organizations that are trying to be thoughtful and intentional about the technology that they bring into their organization, about the decisions that they make around expectations. We're seeing a lot of companies coming back trying to redefine goals and targets and bring back performance management that may have been suspended during the crisis period.

And I've said to my team, ‘The virtual work that we've done during the pandemic is not the same type of work that's going to be sustainable over time into the future. We have to have different tools and we have to have different behaviors.’ For example, if you have to run a performance-management process in Microsoft Word, or just send everything over email and just tell people ‘Do the best you can,’ that's one thing. If you want to build a business that's sustainable over time, you have to have a true goal-setting process. You have to have tools that support that. You have to have tools that support one-on-ones, and there has to be measurement and consistency. The skills that you have to learn are quite literally everything from ‘How do I use this new tool just functionally?’ to ‘How do I build relationships leveraging these tools that I have?’ And when I have analytics and measurement, it’s telling me that either I'm not engaging enough with folks, or this is a best practice that is going to have an impact on how I schedule my work weeks as a leader. And this is a lot of change in a very short period of time.

What does it mean now to have a coaching relationship between a manager and their reports?

For me and how I see coaching, it's as much about listening as helping to guide and advise. We are in a new world of work and are addressing unprecedented new experiences where people are global. The other big shift that we've seen is that we're hiring people all over the world and dealing with many different cultures, time zones, all these different things. A coach is less command and control and much more collaborative relationship-building.

We've found that the coaching orientation is much more successful, especially among knowledge workers. We know this on the people side of business, and I don't see us returning to a true command and control environment. But you see many organizations wanting to revert back to command and control behaviors, like telling people exactly the times they have to be in the office and seeing time in seat as a measure of success. The reason those things have provided us a comfort level in the past is because we've equated our ability to monitor employees with management.

What we know now is monitoring isn't management. And when you're forced to let go of some of those monitoring behaviors, like the ability to see when someone's in front of a computer, you go into some of the true higher-level metrics that determine the impact that an employee can have. Those are things where you collaboratively work together to set goals that an employee knows are achievable, that they can stretch into and that a manager can determine are really going to have a true impact on the business, and that they will be able to support an employee in accomplishing those goals.

So I'm really optimistic about what some of these changes are going to bring us, but we're definitely in a transition period where we're going back to some of those foundational basics in terms of how to build strong relationships. For me, the skill always starts with listening, and then it moves toward asking really good questions and helping an employee uncover their strengths, and then helping an employee match their work to their strengths and removing obstacles.

Given all of these changes in the role of the manager, what can organizations be doing right now to set their managers up for success?

I think it's really all about learning for us. We have a lot of employees asking for education, for learning and development. We have employees saying, ‘I want to grow in my role.’ We have employees saying, ‘I wanna be a part of an organization that has a growth mindset.’ All these are signals that we have the ingredients to get to a really exciting place in terms of the organizations we're building. You have employees that are really interested and motivated and want to learn and grow, and understand that  there's an opportunity for a lot of new skills that are going to help them from a career perspective. And then you have leaders that are identifying those skills and are working to match them to what's happening on the business side. The best thing we can do in the CHRO or CPO seat is to help enable that. Bringing more tools for learning into organizations, leveraging tools that are going to be able to help people have really open conversations and be able to share feedback really effectively.

And it's development planning. As we're talking to candidates, they're interested in knowing what a career path looks like,  what our development planning process is like. We have internal development plans in the Lattice tool, and we have a process where twice a year you sit down and develop those plans together, and then you're executing that over the course of the year. To me, that's the new currency. Everybody knows that the salaries are going to be competitive, benefits are going to be great in many knowledge-work environments, but the key differentiator now is the ability to learn and grow.

What should the learning and development priorities be right now for manager training?

In some ways, the priorities for these new skills should be determined by each organization, because different businesses need different things. But top of mind for me is the manager as coach model, and the specific skill sets that come from there: listening, goal-setting, measurement against goals. And really just being able to give really good feedback, to gather really good feedback, and to translate that into action in partnership with the employee.

The other thing that I'm seeing come up more and more is the need to be able to identify areas of risk for employees, and employees who might be having some challenges. Because the manager's role has gotten so broad, those challenges are as much in the realms of mental health and relationships among coworkers and the employee's relationship with the vision, mission, values of an organization as they are the tactical day-to-day work. So having broader discussions and educating our leaders on how to identify some of those risks as they arise. Supporting those leaders from the organization's standpoint, letting them know, ‘In this kind of scenario, this is what your people partner can do to help. This is what your leaders are here to do.’ Building that infrastructure at an org.

We had a situation where one of our employees was having some challenges with managing their workload. In our tool we have a lot of points of connections so that a manager can see what's happening with each employee, and they don't have to have it in their head. So her manager was able to come in and say, ‘Hey, in the last two weeks, I've seen some fall-off in some of these areas. Can we talk about that?’ And it led to some really open conversations about her work and what the manager can do to be supportive.

Recent research from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that 85% of leaders struggle to know when their employees are being productive. How can workplaces help managers get past so-called “productivity paranoia”?

We already have the solution to this. It's the back-to-basics scenario of what we know about really good management. If you have clear goals and you've set clear priorities and you're measuring those, it's not about how much time people have in their seat, it's about what their deliverables are against goals. And if those goals are truly cascaded, and you're getting lots of feedback about how people are achieving those goals, you have full view into what the outputs are of your org. I think we have gotten off track because in some ways, it's easier to look at somebody at a desk and say, ‘Oh, that's what performance looks like.’ But I don't know that that's ever what any performance management expert would say performance looks like. So it's forcing us actually to get better and to do what we know is the right way to manage performance, which is really managing to goals and objectives and coaching people to those outcomes.

We have lots of frameworks for effective goal setting. We as an organization should make sure that we're aligned from top to bottom with business goals, and everybody has their own set of goals that tie to the mission of the organization as well as the business outcomes that the org wants. I do think it's the responsibility of every organization to train their managers on the kind of goal-setting that particular organization participates in. And then as an organization, have really open conversations about achievement toward those goals. You've got to be transparent about how your organization is tracking toward those things. And I think if managers get really comfortable with the idea of goals and then the measurement against goals, it makes everybody's life easier because it's a very tangible process for people to participate in. It feels really good over time, because there are very few surprises when you are very clearly measuring against the outcomes that you want.

How can they maintain a sense of autonomy while acting as a conduit between employees and leadership, especially right now as return-to-office power struggles play out at many organizations?

I actually see this as a very temporary transition. What I don't think a lot of people may have considered is, folks like me and CFOs and CPOs around the world, we've already made calls about renewal of leases. We've already planned into the next two years around headcount and desk planning and all those things. So while we can argue about the day to day, whether there will be people back in the office or not, there’s been a lot of business planning. You're investing in those leases or you're not. Decisions have been made.

For the organizations that aren't providing flexibility to employees, we're going to see over the next two to three years, they're going to be truly challenged from the talent perspective. You can be the most convincing CEO in talking to the rest of the world about how you're going to bring your people back, but the people who will be coming back, the talent sitting in the seat, won't necessarily be the talent that’s going to really provide the results that you want. So I think we're going to see some of those very stringent organizations facing business challenges because they're not going to have the talent they need to be successful.

Just to state the obvious here, the middle manager's job has gotten a lot harder and it requires a lot more support and effort on behalf of the organization to give them what they need to be successful. I think some organizations have caught up to that, and on the people side of the business are having lots of conversations on what are the best ways to support these managers. Their job has become even more important in the last two to three years because they truly are that connection between the broader business, the broader organization, the broader culture, and individuals who want to do a good job in their work. So they deserve the support. They need the support.

What's really important on the manager's side is to make sure that you're articulating your needs as well. I think some of that is a new skill that we're having to learn: What is the best way to communicate in this new environment, whether hybrid or virtual or even back to the office, and demanding the right tools to do that and the right cadence of work? Demanding one-on-ones, whereas before when everybody was in the office and bumping into each other in the hallways, you didn't have to count on that as much. You have to formalize some of these more informal communication channels and you have to have the right tools to do that. And I think you need to be really crisp and clear about articulating what the best communication avenues are, since we now have a million from Slack to email to Zooms to texts. So we have to be more thoughtful and intentional in our communications.

Could you share an example about what that might look like?

The one-on-one is a really specific example of that. It is the core of what I think good management is, because it's just you making time to have a one-on-one conversation and address the needs of that person in that moment. You're exercising all those really important management skills like listening and giving feedback and empathizing. In the past, we might not have been as structured around one-on-ones, we might not have been as consistent. And I think that in this new world, it's become  the foundational employee experience within organizations. It's something that requires planning and thoughtfulness, and it can be a really powerful lever if you're leveraging it effectively.

I'm also thinking a lot about the concept of self-engagement these days. How do you give folks optionality in how they want to learn and grow? How do you let them opt into the work style and the work experience that work best for them? For me, that's bringing in tools like Udemy and WorkRamp and putting things at individuals’ fingertips. I think people understand that if we're doing the right thing in terms of helping people understand their strengths, and we're setting the right goals, and they're understanding what they're asked to accomplish, then we trust that individual to be able to raise their hand and ask for the learning that they need. Then our job is to make sure they have access to that learning content, to those learning opportunities that really help them engage in the work.