Is Middle Management Becoming Obsolete?

Yes, this is one of those trick questions. You can find equal support for either side. No, middle managers will be more important than ever. Yes, with working from home becoming more of the norm and virtual teams, AI, and technology taking over, middle managers are redundant.

The real answer is that the role of middle managers is morphing into something else. The traditional middle manager spends time delegating work, conducting performance reviews, dealing with problem performance, reviewing the work of others, sitting in high level meetings, and playing intermediary between and among functional groups.

Now that people keep their own schedules, meet in person or virtually across all levels, share expertise on multiple teams, design their own workflow to accomplish measurable goals, and speak openly and freely with leaders, the traditional middle manager doesn’t have much to do. There are still plenty of hierarchical organizations that follow a strict chain of command where a “gatekeeper” manager is an important fixture. Yet during this health crisis, with many people working successfully from home—even in jobs where they were previously told that working from home was not feasible—a shake-up in roles is emerging.

There has been a paradigm shift where working from home is likely to become more of the norm and going into the office will be the exception. Organizations that quickly adapt will see stronger cultures—cultures that will be ready to face future crises and continuous change. Remote employees quickly learn technology and reengineer processes that cut through old bureaucracy. I have been seeing it daily. Remote workers are now taking communication risks that they never would have taken if they were at the office, where they may have had to follow rigid rules like “don’t ever send Tanya an email without going through me.” Remote workers, especially those balancing children at home, are thinking more clearly about efficiency. Managers are being forced to go with the flow of these new communication pathways as they now judge actions on results instead of rule-following.

Analytics are already proving (as predicted in an HBR article one year before Covid, Choudhury et al, 8/14/19) that working from home leads to higher productivity. Over the last two months, workers have found creative and innovative ways to get work done, learn on the job through technological resources, stay in touch, and live a more balanced life. They are not working less. What they have now is flexibility to get more and more work done—whether it is 9 to 5 or at 3:00 in the morning

In this reversed world, traditional managers are adopting new ways of managing: facilitating virtual meetings, holding one-on-one Zoom sessions, using technology to monitor tasks and performance, applying analytics to assess trends, measuring real outcomes (not whether I can physically see you working), conducting virtual interviews, reaching out to all levels of the organization as equals learning together, and navigating messages and decisions in new team situations.

Prior to Covid, data was showing (, 10/31/2019) that middle managers needed to become more like project managers or “team leads,” being equally skilled in demonstrating empathy, guidance, support, feedback, coaching, teaching, and overall orchestration. After Covid, the need for this shift is even greater. Dialogue—strong language skills—will be paramount in building trust and mutual respect. This seems ironic and almost counter-intuitive. The truth is that conducting meetings virtually actually requires more sophisticated verbal communication than working with people face-to-face. It requires more focus, more questions, increased testing of assumptions, the observation of subtle cues, and sensitivity to time-sensitive conversations.

With staff likely to be at home, in the office, and in distant locations, this new breed of management will carry the vision, track projects, initiate and sustain a positive culture, ensure results, and create team communities that are in sync. This requires top notch skills in platforms that improve processes, streamline data sources, and enable just-in-time communications across multiple levels and locations. These super managers need to be comfortable with moving targets and with infrastructures that support new ways to evaluate work. During this crisis, projects that used to take six months are getting done in two weeks. Rules requiring ten signoffs are being replaced with accountability measures that foster “just get it done well.”

What should we call this new manager: Team Advocate? Lead Partner? Division Coach? Lead Conductor? I do know that we have to define this role right now –complete with required characteristics, skills sets, talents, and training. Those left behind are going to struggle for several years as they try to right themselves and move into the age of “never normal again.”

Virginia Bianco-Mathis is a Partner at the Strategic Performance Group, a Senior Consultant at Oyster Organizational Development, and Chair of the Department of Management (Director of the Human Resources and Organization Development programs) at Marymount University. She is a thought leader whose work spans all aspects of human resources, and has deep experience in academia, consulting, and executive coaching.

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