Our work environment continues to change right before our eyes.  According to Statistics Canada, before the pandemic, less than 10% of Canadians worked fully remotely and today that number is above 20%, with an even higher percentage working partially remotely.  A recent survey by the Global Government Forum amongst Federal Government knowledge workers indicates that more than 80% of these employees currently work in either a remote or hybrid manner. Many of the other roles within the Federal Government such as Border Agents, Service Canada Passport Agents, Correctional Workers, Parks Staff, Food Inspectors, and many others are in fact first line jobs that do not offer the opportunity to work remotely in any form. Since the onset of the pandemic, it has been largely left to Middle Managers to implement and support the progression to remote and then back and forth through various degrees of hybrid depending on the policies of the day from the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and considering the equity of those in roles that cannot be performed remotely. Through our advisory work with many federal departments, we have continued to witness Middle Managers who must deal with the impact of these changes themselves, while simultaneously being left to execute the directions amongst their staff, usually with incomplete information, unclear rationale and most importantly limited tools.

So, what is a Middle Manager anyway?  BetterUp (Meg Lyons) defines the middle manager as someone who is in a leadership position and also reports to top management.  Middle Managers manage up, and they manage down. They take direction and they give direction.  When employees have questions or concerns around strategy and direction, the impact on them, their own well being, etc. it’s their direct manager/supervisor/team leader that they go to for information, support, empathy and solutioning.

While Middle Managers are at the core of any change initiative within the organization, either cheering on and enabling the change amongst teams, or digging in and supporting resistance against the change, the most transformational change through the last four years of course has been the shift in where and how we work.  On-site, remote, hybrid has shifted where we work from, how we work with each other and the tools we use to accomplish our work tasks.  It has also accelerated our advancement of certain technologies to more effectively allow us to work in these various methods, together, or individually.  Middle Managers continue to be thrust into the role of implementing these changes.

Early in the pandemic employees looked to and felt supported by Executive levels as they made critical decisions about how, where and when work would be done in the interest of health and safety. We have conducted several Organizational Performance modeling initiatives for various Federal Departments and when reviewing the Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) results over the last four years it is clear that while the impact of Executives on employees initially spiked early in the pandemic, it has since returned to pre-pandemic levels.  The data related to Middle Managers, however, depicts a sustained increase in their impact on their employees as they continue to provide critical support to team members to remove barriers, listen and empathize, develop flexible solutions, and continue to guide their journey to new, better, and different ways of working.  In the latest PSES data, across the Government of Canada as a whole, when simply looking at Index scores of the impact of factors on employees, whether that be positive or negative impact, we see that the Organization itself and Senior Management have approximately a 68% impact on employees.  Whereas direct supervisors, Middle Managers, have an over 80% impact on employees.

Its clear Middle Managers are supporting teams, but are organizations supporting and enabling Middle Managers?

We are now seeing governments pivot from growth towards restraint and old issues of constrained budgets and concern for productivity are returning. The trend is likely to continue as budgets unfold over the next couple of years and Middle Managers will be at the forefront of supporting austerity exercises and the usual push to do more with less.  What cannot be ignored is the need to invest in Middle Managers even through these times of constraint. Without tooling and upskilling the middle layer, Departments and Agencies will inevitably be unable to navigate the steady stream of change taking place and benefits realization will be severely impeded.  Gains made to date around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), Mental Health, Technology Advancement, Distributed Work Models, etc. are at risk of being diminished without investing in Middle Managers in areas such as the following:

Results Based Leadership:

  • We are no longer in a management by walking around world.  The deliverable or outcome of our work is not sitting in a cubicle for 7.5 hours a day.  Through our work with many departments, we continue to see managers struggling with how to organize and manage their teams’ work when it is a not a project situation. Where we have seen success is when managers have been able to organize their teams around concrete outputs and outcomes and measure them in a manner that does not only allow to confirm that team members are working but enables them to have better performance conversations, enables them to better demonstrate value to internal and external clients, and empowers staff to be part of a result as opposed to just being a cost and activity on an annual work plan.  Tooling and training Middle Managers to strategize, organize and lead around a results dimension is critical to future success. 

Change Leadership:

  • Everyone knows change is around us.  Middle Managers sit in the difficult position of executing change every day while both empathizing and convincing staff to join them on the journey that they themselves may not even be sure about.  We have conducted Change Leadership workshops across many Federal departments and without a doubt the greatest impact is always at the Middle Manager level.  They engage in the discussion, they ask for more, they use the learnings immediately in practice.  More organizations need to support their managers with Change Leadership training, job aids, and tools to reduce the anxiety and pressure on these managers while also ensuring better uptake and consistency within the changes underway.

Agile Mindset:

  • An Agile mindset values innovation and recognizes the importance of experimentation and problem-solving skills within teams.  A day doesn’t go by that I don’t here Federal Government clients telling us they need to be more agile. While workshops on general scrum techniques have been great for foundational knowledge in some organizations, what Middle Managers really need are learnings, tools and techniques to apply an agile mindset to the day-to-day activities of their team.   Coaching on how to apply agile techniques to the development of policies, briefing notes, executive briefing decks, options analyses, financial forecasts, communications plans, and so on, turning the work all teams do on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis into “products” that can contribute to departmental internal and external outcomes.   

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Awareness:

  • ESG objectives, particularly those related to Greening and DEI, are very prevalent in Mandate Letters.  The awareness, skills and tools to be able to engrain and embed the thinking and practices required within departmental processes so that the outcomes become part of everyday life requires investment.  In the most recent Auditor General Report (Oct 2023) DEI shortcomings were one of the items flagged for Management Action.  Who will need to implement the Management Response?  Yes, Middle Managers.  Our client departments that are having greater success in these areas are the ones that embed principles around DEI, Accessibility, GBA Plus, etc. within both their strategic and day-to-day processes and do not simply add checklists to the end of their processes or initiatives.  

Collaboration Tools:

  • Teams are working in a more decentralized and virtual manner than ever before. How do we help Middle Managers in this environment besides giving everyone MS Teams, which is of course now the standard for online meetings?  Luckily for Departments, MS Teams is only one piece of the broader Microsoft M365 suite that many departments have already implemented or are enroute to implementing.  Tools such as SharePoint, OneDrive, MS Planner, Power Automate, Forms, Polls, etc. offer the opportunity to bring results driven orientations to life in an online fashion that Middle Managers can use as a lifeline to keep on top of their teams’ outcomes.

Business Intelligence Tools:

  • A typical Middle Manager survival tool over the years has been MS Excel and for some MS Access.  They have gone from traditional black books to black book “systems” to help organize, manage and track their teams and work.  Over the last few years Power BI has exploded onto the desktops of everyone and is quickly becoming the new “safety blanket” for managers.  Not surprisingly, most of the capabilities at the Middle Manager and Team level in this area have come from learning from trial and error, YouTube and peers.  For Power BI and other business intelligence tools to be useful in supporting many of the items on this list as well as more broadly, Middle Managers need targeted training, coaching and job aids on how to build, view and tell executive level data stories based upon the dashboards and reports at hand.  Working with departments on a daily basis, the need for access to relevant data on a timely basis in order to tell concise stories about opportunities, challenges, results and so on has never been more vital and Middle Managers continue to be disheartened by the lack of consistent enablement from their organizations. 

Artificial Intelligence Readiness:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in particular, Generative AI, have burst onto the corporate scene much faster than most anticipated.  Those inundated with AI applications and ideas at home or in the world at large are itching to bring some of that to their workplaces. TBS recently launched a Guide on the use of Generative AI (September 2023) and many departments are undertaking various path finder projects to experiment and implement AI tools.  While the promise of AI is real, the core of the organization that will need to be ready for the tools, ready to adapt business processes and ready to enable teams still require support to achieve the intended plans.  Once again, tools and learnings to support Middle Managers would provide the grease necessary to support a smooth transition through AI related change.

As the jobs of Middle Managers continue to get more challenging in a more complex environment and their role becomes more vital to their organizations’ success, this calls out for action. It won’t be enough to try to hunker down and try to survive. It requires investing time and effort in equipping them to thrive. As the most famous singer on the planet once said, Are you ready for it?