Lockdown line management: new engagement strategies need to be deployed and HR support is key

Blog posts

30 Apr 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

For a large proportion of the working age population, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how and where we work – but in my opinion, two factors amongst this change have remained constant: the importance of the health and wellbeing of the workforce, and how employees are line managed.

The pandemic resulted in a significant and rapid shift, where, for many, work was carried out remotely, to reduce levels of transmission; but this shift not only had an impact on everyday organisational operations but also the line management relationship.  Although a focus on employee wellbeing has been increasing over the last few decades, the pandemic has once again catapulted this into the spotlight.  This change has a number of knock-on implications for management skills and practices which has consequences for employee wellbeing and productivity.  How line managers adapt their practices in these ‘remote’ times is therefore important for organisations to consider.

The new ‘virtual world’ that many of us have experienced over the last year has had an impact on the wellbeing of employees – as our IES survey found many have experienced social isolation, have been working longer hours and have felt fatigued.  However, our research also indicated employees who had more contact with their line managers reported improved levels of organisational commitment and job satisfaction.  But what has been the impact of these changes for line managers?  Even before the pandemic, line managers were ‘squeezed’ as a result of the roles and responsibilities they hold in organisations, and moving to the virtual role during the pandemic seemingly had negative implications for their wellbeing.  Employees with line managerial responsibilities in our survey reported lower work-life balance and job satisfaction than those who did not manage anyone.

How can organisations and HR ensure that if the transition to a virtual world becomes more permanent, out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind, and both employee and line manager wellbeing can be maintained?

Research has highlighted a number of strategies that line managers can undertake to help support those whom they manage and enhance wellbeing when teleworking:

  • Communication is key. This includes taking into account when and how often contact is made.  Regular contact is preferred so that a positive employment relationship can be maintained.  Listening is also important here, especially as managers will not have that subtlety of non-verbal communication cues they could have in a face-to-face environment.  For a ‘good’ conversation, managers may have to use exploratory questions to understand a source of anxiety, explore performance issues and gain as full a knowledge as possible about what employees have experienced during lockdown.  This could be more time consuming, but it is time well spent.
  • Trust is important for honesty and transparency – keeping in touch with employees is not just about monitoring their output, but having empathy with staff, and the situation they are in.  Trust has to work both ways for virtual management to be effective, but developing trust leads to the development of work autonomy and can help employees manage tasks around individual circumstances.
  • At this time, it is especially helpful for clear goals and objectives to be established including good communication channels with project teams, effective performance and development conversations, and timely feedback.  Helping employees to understand what is expected of them, allowing them input into any goal-setting or work priorities is an important dimension of effective performance and development conversations.
  • Consider both physical and mental health: poor home set-ups can result in poor musculoskeletal health – line managers should signpost employees to OH and recommend workplace assessments.  Changes in routines, isolation and concerns about the pandemic itself could lead to negative ill-health. Line managers are usually best placed to spot any changes in employee behaviours.  Line managers should also be aware of these pressures on their own mental health.

Line managers play a pivotal role, but there are concerns they are not being provided with the resources that are necessary to be effective. So, what can HR do to support line managers both now and in the future?

  • Line management selection.  How and why are line managers selected?  Is it just because they have climbed up the greasy pole of management?  Do line managers have the emotional intelligence needed to undertake the role?  This pandemic could be the much needed catalyst to change how organisations choose line managers if employee wellbeing is an organisational priority.
  • Line management training could be offered, especially any specific skills that could help with virtual management e.g. self-management, time-management and company policies about off-site working. 
  • Clarify line manager expectations.  Although training would be beneficial, it will not be the ‘fix all’. A line manager’s bandwidth is already constrained (potentially even more stretched as a consequence of the pandemic), so line management expectations do need to be clarified.  Is it time to devolve some of their responsibilities back to HR?
  • Can more be done to promote a positive wellbeing culture in an organisation?  Do organisations promote ‘good work’ principles and are line managers also supported with managing all their tasks on a day-to-day basis?
  • Are employees switching off at the end of the day? Our IES survey indicated that people were working over their contracted hours when working from home, but is this because managers are still assessing employees by hours worked over quality of output?

Organisations should use the Covid-19 pandemic and the changes this may have for the workforce to re-assess what the business needs and wants from line managers, and develop strategic plans of action regarding how line managers are selected and developed.  Employees being out of sight should not mean out of mind for line managers, especially if positive employee wellbeing is to be maintained.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.