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Don’t Forget Managers in Your Employee Experience Strategy

March 08, 2022 Employee Experience
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Over the past two years, there's been a heightened focus on employee experience and engagement and how to better manage these critical success factors in the midst of the major changes that digital transformation and widespread remote work brought to the workplace.

In those discussions, there's been a tendency to overlook the effect of these changes on the vast army of middle managers who oversee the critical day-to-day operations of their companies. Instead, much of the commentary has focused on their role in ensuring the employees they manager are happy, engaged and productive.

Recent research from HR software firm Humu reveals managers are struggling, too. That's a big blind spot that could torpedo organizational productivity and performance.

Managers Are Struggling

In 2021, the role of the manager became more important — and more stressful — than ever, the Humu report reads. Leaders see managers as key to improving culture, retention and performance. At the same time, employees expect to feel supported, motivated and valued by their manager — and are ready to quit if they don’t.

The pressure is intense, with expectations from above and below. This has created a situation where many managers are now suffering from burnout and searching for different roles themselves. Through interviews with more than 200 managers and 200-plus human resources leaders, and data from over 90,000 employees, the report identified three key issues:

  • Managers' jobs are 10-times harder today: Managers say retention, hiring and team performance are their top challenges.
  • Leader and manager priorities don’t match: Leaders are focused on high level transformation, but managers need help with the fundamentals.
  • Managers are ready to quit: Managers are 2-times more likely than lower level employees to look for new jobs.

There are clear financial and productivity implications. According to the report, it takes a 20 percent pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, but almost nothing to poach a disengaged worker. Further, teams are 80 percent more likely to make improvements when they see their managers taking action. And during the pandemic, teams with a highly effective manager were 21 percent more likely to feel supported and 15 percent better at creating new communication norms and routines.

Related Article: The Problem With Employee Experience Today

Treat Managers as the Valuable Resource They Are

Organizations need to start looking after this valuable resource, said Ann Piccirillo, senior vice president with business outsourcing specialist JDA TSG. Managers, she said, are looking for organizations that will invest in their growth and development in a meaningful and committed way. More to the point, they're among an organization’s highest performing employees, which means prescriptive onboarding and continued development should be a priority, but that's often not the case.

“In my experience, there are three imperatives to engaging and retaining managers," she said. "Help them connect to other leaders across business units by scheduling introductory meetings; help them understand the business of the organization; and help them create a cross-functional peer network.”

These three imperatives equip managers to contribute sustainable value to the organization. Helping them build connections, increase their competence and establish credibility is foundational for their future success, but it also makes them feel like a valued member of the team. Among the strategies she suggests:

  • Develop their competence in learning new skills, both hard technical skills as well as soft, leadership skills.
  • Build essential skills based on market demand.
  • Provide a mentor and sponsor.
  • Help them establish credibility by arranging opportunities for meeting senior leadership.
  • Provide opportunities for them to interact with other parts of the organization.
  • Invite them to meetings with clients and other stakeholders.

Related Article: 5 Small Ways to Improve the Employee Experience

Include Managers in Employee Experience Strategy

Managers are often ignored when discussing the employee base, particularly when developing an employee experience strategy, said Dana E. Sims, an industrial organizational psychologist and the CEO and co-founder of Fedability

“Much of the attention to employee experience is on the frontline, individual contributor rather than those in management,” she said. “On top of this, the additional activities associated with building a better employee experience has been heaped onto the plate of the manager. As a result, managers are getting little benefit or attention but all of the added work.”

A common mistake is to assume that employee experience is one-size-fits-all. To prevent high performing, manager-level employees from heading for the exit, leaders need to begin focusing on their experience with the company. For example, Sims said many manager-level employees have been given the responsibility to manage their team’s wellness without having anyone concerned about theirs.

What's more, some managers have not been given the training or support needed to manage employees in a remote environment. Yet, they, themselves, are held accountable for teams they have difficulty managing. As a result, their wellness is suffering and they experience burnout as fast as – if not faster – than the team members they manage.

Related Article: 4 Trends That Will Shape Employee Experience in 2022

'Herd Bias' Means Manager Resignations Are Contagious

Failure to act on the individual manager level can lead to significant problems at the organizational level. Zivit Inbar, an Australia-based human resources consultant and the founder and CEO of DifferenThinking, said that humans natural "herd bias" means that resignations can become contagious as others start to follow.

“If people from my company moved to a new employer and are happy, not to mention that they told me they received a significantly improved salary, why wouldn't I try it as well?” she said.

What's more, managers represent organizational culture in a very visible way — the way they behave, treat people, communicate, accept and sanction behaviors, and make decisions all make up the employee experience. When a good manager leaves, employees can become concerned about the future implications for them, which can lead to more departures.

“We expect managers to lead their teams in a prolonged crisis, support team members and ensure high performance," Inbar said. "We shouldn't forget that managers are human beings and some are struggling themselves — not only with their role as leaders but also personally."

Managers need support on both levels, and they do not receive it in many cases, she added.

Related Article: Make Your Organization a Place Worth Staying

The Great Realization

It also means that employers need to think more openly about what work will look like in the future in increasingly practical terms. The Great Resignation is a "Great Realization" for corporate America, said Miles Everson, CEO of consultancy MBO Partners. The structure of work — what it is, how it's best performed and by whom — is undergoing a dramatic transformation that deserves the keen attention of managers, directors and C-suite executives alike, he said.

“Your employees are leaving, and you need to find a way to attract and retain top talent, which extends well beyond the traditional employee-employer work arrangements,” Everson said.

The Great Resignation will continue until the focus shifts to sustainable ways to access and engage employees over the long term, he added.

“Organizations need to recognize that unless and until you reorient your workforce structures to more innovative models that incorporate and scale the use of independent workers in collaboration with traditional full-time employees, some of your very best professionals and new hire candidates will not even consider working for you,” he said.

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