When 20th-Century writer Isaac Asimov uttered those words several decades ago, had he already foreseen a future of AI, chatbots, and AR? When he passed away in 1992, the book, “Reengineering the Corporation” hadn’t even been written. Since then, middle managers, the critical link between executive management and workers, has been diminishing and even under assault in certain quarters as some companies strived to flatten and streamline their companies.
The pandemic may have reopened serious consideration about the future of middle managers. With many employees relegated to working remotely, middle managers were a critical connection between senior staff and the workforce. But as we enter a new normal, what is their future?
Managers still play a key role when it comes to training and developing staff. Coaching, supporting, and leading others is not something that can be replaced by robots. This became even more evident during the pandemic and may have reawakened some leaders. Real-time feedback is also something that can only be performed by a human being.
Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that many HR budgets have focused more on things like onboarding and compliance issues rather than nurturing and developing middle managers. And with an increasing focus on diversity and inclusion at more companies, this raises the question of whether HR budgets will be increased to accommodate all these priorities or whether some areas and issues will take even bigger cuts.
During the pandemic, many things became virtual. However, it doesn’t change the fact that training still focuses on the job on hand while so much of learning is first-hand. So much of the latter is social and a larger part of the fabric of a company. Camaraderie, teamwork, and collaboration can’t be fostered through reading but only through social engagement and relationship-building. Middle managers hold the key to that.
In a world of increasing automation, how do companies achieve a balance of middle managers while handing over more and more roles to bots? An initial step may be in requiring middle managers to work alongside these machines while exercising human judgment based on their own experience.
HR departments may need to rethink the kind of training and development being provided to middle managers, especially in areas of coaching and developing diverse employees so that they, too, may learn and aspire to higher levels within the organization. This will also mean that HR departments rethink and redefine the roles and responsibilities of middle management.
Any such transformations will likely create some tension and anxieties. Companies need to be clear about their expectations for middle managers in redefined roles and expectations. Clarity on expectations will be important so that they can successfully transition from something seemingly vague to more deliberate actions, so their chances of succeeding are higher.
While no one can predict when the next crisis, pandemic or otherwise, might occur, COVID-19 did cause companies to pivot faster. Organizations that make it clear as to what everyone’s role is and the jobs that need to be done, and with whom they all interact will be able to move forward faster and react more quickly if and when another crisis occurs.
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