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Line managers are the unsung heroes of white-collar work

Line managers are the unsung heroes of white-collar work

First research findings published by the Work After Lockdown project

How good your line manager makes the difference between an employee coping or struggling in lockdown. But too often line managers’ heroic efforts are not noticed by their employers. These are just two findings from a major new report, titled Working under Covid-19 Lockdown: Transitions and Tensions, published this week. The report is the first research findings from an eighteen-month study funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research & Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19 into how enforced working from home is changing how people want to work in the future and how organisations respond.

Frequent contact with your manager is one of the key determinants of better mental health. A good line manager can also spot the early signs of anxiety, stress and loneliness.  They watch for warning flags such as if an employee always turns off their camera in a team meeting. Our findings show a clear link between a supportive line manager and a positive experience of working under lockdown.

Line managers are not only important for sustaining employees but also helping them thrive. Many managers adapted quickly to the challenges of the rapid move into the first lockdown.  Interviewees shared stories of line managers going to extraordinary efforts to support their teams emotionally and practically, “my manager has been extremely supportive and I think that makes all the difference. We have very open one-to-ones and I say how I’m feeling about things. I feel really lucky.” 

But only a minority of line managers have received any guidance on how to manage these new complexities of different work patterns caused by lockdown and newly geographically dispersed teams. Line managers also have to carry this extra burden without any adjustments being made to their workload. This responsibility takes its toll with those who manage people feeling under more pressure than other parts of the workforce. 

Self-investment in training was low during lockdown with only one in three (33%) employees in our survey who had engaged in any extra training or learning to enhance their skills. This compares to a national figure of 43%.

Working from home has also exposed some line managers who lack any empathy and the necessary people skills needed to navigate managing teams in a new way.

Our findings have major implications for employers and policy-makers as we consider how work will look in a post-pandemic world.

Work has changed and employers need to:

  • Look after their line managers and recognise the extra work they are doing in these unprecedented times
  • Take the opportunity to develop standards for good line management. There needs to be a greater emphasis on the social and interpersonal skills needed to support, motivate and engage people through changing circumstances.
  • Coupled with standards, employers need to offer training that strengthens the management skills and capabilities that a likely hybrid model of working demands. 

Commenting on the report, Principal Investigator Dr Jane Parry University of Southampton, said:

For many employees, line managers are the face of their organisation. They go beyond their job description and paid hours to look after others and help them shine. But who looks after them?”

Dr Zoe Young, Half the Sky said:

“Our research has identified clear training gaps for those who have to manage teams. Employers need to invest in the right kind of training so they can develop modern managers who can support and motivate teams without being in the same place as them”. 

Stephen Bevan, IES said:

“Employee well-being is the dominant issue for employers as we move from crisis mode to recovery and the quality of engagement with a line manager plays an important part in how an employee feels”.

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