Leadership and Management
Can Today’s Manager Escape the Organization Hamster Wheel?
If you ask a cross-section of managers about how hard they are working today, they will almost universally admit to being busier than ever. And it doesn’t seem to matter where the organization happens to be, what industry it’s in or even how big or successful it is, leaders everywhere are expected to do more with less and feel almost “run off their feet” –like being in a giant hamster wheel which is turning faster and faster with the manager trying harder and harder to keep running and not stumble –feel familiar?
So what has happened in recent years to bring about this situation? Well, perhaps at an overarching level, the world of work (particularly in the west, although the rest of the world is catching up fast) has been through a massive transformation (which is on-going of course) and this can be viewed at three levels:
- People – Connectivity has increased massively as new digital tools of various kinds (especially smart phones and tablets with their variety of applications and software and the rise of social media platforms) have become commonplace, enabling us to work and communicate in a range of different ways.
- Places and Time – Employees are increasingly working on the move – from airports, other offices, during the commute to and from home etc. This means that we have become more flexible in terms of whether our physical presence is required or not. In addition, work is no longer 9 till 5 for many people today-instead it can occur 7 days a week and across a much longer working day (with emails and text messages being sent late into the evening at times).
- Technology – Fast development in computer technology in particular have meant that the idea of the office as the primary work location is being challenged, and people can now increasingly work anywhere and any place as they choose. Computers can even entirely replace people in some job roles in a few cases.
All of the above combine to disrupt the workplace significantly and make the job of the manager more difficult than ever before, ever struggling to keep up-to-date and in control.
Added to this general change, pressure on managers comes from several other key factors. Let’s look at each of these one by one.
1. Managerial numbers are down
In the last few decades, the numbers of managers to employees (the ratio) has fallen dramatically. This obviously varies across countries, geographies, industries and even companies, but most recent research estimates that in proportion to the total working population, the managerial population is around 25% fewer than it was in the late 1960’s. Waves of redundancies from the 1970’s onwards have had the major toll here.
2. Spans of control are higher
Although it is a natural implication of the above, managers have been under increasing pressure to supervise larger teams of people and have more direct reports. In the last 25 years, spans of control have gone from 4-8 people on average to 8-15 on average.
3. The legal climate is more sensitive than ever
Managers today have to be increasingly aware of the legal climate in which individuals are employed (and spend time dealing with lots of compliance issues of various kinds). This has been heavily influenced by human resource specialist knowledge decreasing in organizations or being delegated to line managers.
4. Roles are broader and more complex
Management roles were technically and functionally narrower in the past. Today, the manager role is much broader on average with many leaders now handling multiple functions in addition to their specialist role. For example, an engineering manager may also commonly have to handle some aspects procurement, finance, and labor relations.
5. Product and service offerings are more sophisticated (and offer more choice to customers)
Customers at all levels are more demanding than ever. This puts greatest pressure on managers who increasingly have to ensure that they can design and supervise work processes which adequately deliver these more complex product and service offerings and ensure that the right product/service gets to the right customer at the right time, continually.
6. Coordination of people is more challenging
Because people are not necessarily in one location so often today, managers are much more challenged in having to coordinate with individuals (who may be working in a different location or at home) and with teams (who can sometimes only meet as a whole if technology is used such as Skype or video conference calls).
7. Emails, meetings and other communication channels are out of control
It is commonplace now for managers to have anywhere from 50 to 300 emails a day (with 150-200 being an average). Not all of these are critical but at least a third of them take huge amounts of time to deal with them. Many recent surveys suggest than an average manager spends one to two hours a day on email alone. Beyond email there are the many mobile and other phone calls, text messages, page messages and planned/unplanned meetings that must be dealt with in the busy, often elongated day (and often get the most fast attention, even if they are not urgent or important).
8. The working week is no longer 9-5pm and 5 days a week
Most managers have always worked relatively long hours in a working week but could do this in the Monday to Friday work week for the most part. However, many workplaces now allow or even encourage managers to take work home at night, if necessary, and even come in or work on weekends.
So can managers escape the hamster wheel?
We can do little about the fact that people, places and technologies have changed significantly and continue to change in the future. This is inevitable. However, we can do something about the eight “hamster wheel traps” described above with a little effort. So let’s make a few simple suggestions in all eight of them.
1. Lower Management numbers –more opportunities?
Managerial numbers may be lower in absolute terms but this occurred partly as a result of new systems, innovation and technology. Managers therefore need to focus on the scope to use the same devices to reduce low-level work and the more mundane tasks that management still has to do.
2. Greater span of control –a chance to delegate and empower people?
Wider spans of control provide the opportunity for greater empowerment of employees. All a manager therefore has to do is to think more carefully about how to strategically delegate.
3. A more sensitive legal climate –better protections for all?
The law better protects employees in today’s workplace and puts pressure on managers to know their legal obligations to their team members. However, this is readily learned in many areas and where this is more difficult greater use of external advisers can be made.
4. Broader Roles –a chance to learn and grow?
Management roles are sometimes quite complex but this brings with it the chance to learn about new areas and to develop new skills. Managers can have several careers these days and this variety of role helps prepare people for this eventuality.
5. More customer choice –an opportunity to be more creative?
Customers will always want new and different things but a manager can and should see this as an opportunity to be creative about how to deliver it. Sometimes this can be done directly but partnering and outsourcing may be others options to consider.
6. Challenging People Coordination –a chance to participate in this new flexibility?
People may work in very different ways now but this opportunity is also available to the manager. Flexible working is therefore a real choice for all.
7. Out of Control communication channels –a chance to become more disciplined?
Technology is potentially a benefit and a trap. Managers consequently have to ensure that they do not become a slave to the technology. Text, email and meeting management control methods are all relatively straightforward to introduce with a little discipline.
8. The working week is no longer 9-5pm and 5 days a week
Despite the pressures from above, most managers have more choice about when they work than they may think. Working late and on weekends is more of a habit and managers need to break the habit or redesign their work to ensure that they can stay fresh.
Many managers may well feel trapped in their own version of the corporate hamster wheel and not know how to get out. However, although some significant structural workplace changes may have helped to put them there, there may be more scope to for managers to take steps to help themselves (at least in small but significant ways) than they may think.