Everything we know about the world of work has been called into question as we have responded to and start to recover from an unprecedented global public-health crisis. Still, it does present an opportunity to reimagine the future of work. I have spoken to some leaders and organizations over the past few months who believe things will go back to the way they were once the “pandemic ends.” But is that what we really want?

Now’s our chance to create people-centric workplaces

Employee expectations have changed. In July, 4 out of 5 employees said they wanted an arrangement in the future that wasn’t fully office-based. At the same time, 77% of employees were expressing interest in more support for work-life balance from their employers. Perhaps the best reasoning for not going back to the way things were is that the pandemic has exacerbated some of the fundamental issues that have plagued our workplaces for a while now.

With our partners at Microsoft, we get to see some fascinating data and patterns about ways of working. Based on Microsoft’s research on the use of Teams, its collaboration app, we see there are more communications and fewer boundaries since the pandemic’s onset. There has been a 48% increase in Teams chats per person, and the share of users sending after-hours chats has doubled. People are in significantly more meetings, taking more ad hoc calls, and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic.

If you are exhausted and stiff after a day of nonstop Zoom calls, you are not alone. Video meetings require more sustained concentration to read body language, deal with unreliable audio, and much more. Back-to-back meetings can fatigue your mind and body. And if you are getting pinged and emailed while on Zoom, you are likely multitasking and switching context to the detriment of your productivity. Research has shown it could take over 20 minutes to return to a task after you’ve been interrupted.

We are seeing these changes lead to real effects: 34% of organizations have seen a decline in work-life-balance scores. Employees overwhelmed by their workload are over twice as likely to exhibit signs of burnout. Alarmingly, burnout levels are at a two-year high as of this August, according to Glint research.

Tap managers to throw water on burnout

Addressing burnout risk factors proactively will be crucial to designing work experiences of the future. Glint research shows that employees who scored in the bottom quartile of three key drivers—learning and growth opportunities, work-life balance, and career opportunities—were more likely to exhibit burnout signals compared to those in the top quartile in these areas. As an example, employees who don’t feel they have opportunities to grow their careers are almost three times more likely to experience burnout than those who do.

So where do people managers come into the equation when talking about burnout? Managers matter a lot here since they have an outsized impact on engagement and productivity. Our research shows that employees who recommend their managers are more likely to be engaged and stay with the company longer, and are happier with their company culture, in contrast to those who do not recommend their managers. 

Let’s layer onto that some fascinating patterns Microsoft has gleaned from aggregated behavioral data. The data shows that manager-employee one-on-one meetings can lead to fewer hours of work by employees—which is a game-changer, given what I already mentioned about a rapid increase in work hours. Employees who had the most one-on-one time with their managers experienced less increase in work-week hours when compared to those with low one-on-one time. And it’s never too late to start, because even those who began consistent manager one-on-one meetings only after the shift to remote work started saw that it had a positive effect on how much they worked. 

What’s more, Microsoft’s sentiment data proved this strategy of quality manager-employee interactions was working. In a company-wide employee engagement survey, Microsoft found that employees who receive prioritization support from their managers were 2.5 times more likely to report maintaining their productivity levels as well as work-life balance in comparison to those who do not receive prioritization support.

Work flexibility means more trust and empowerment

We also know that flexible workplaces of the future will require more trust and empowerment. This is certainly not new; Google found this to be critical to quality management in its multiyear research study. It’s just that, like many other aspects of the workplace, the pandemic has become a catalyst for more flexibility, which inherently requires more empowerment. Glint research has also shown those who are empowered are 3.4 times more likely to be engaged. We also found in LinkedIn research that 56% of employees would like more autonomy to design their work (this was greater in Asia than in other regions). 

So to recap, we are seeing manager behavior has an impact on employees’: 

  • Sense of empowerment 
  • Ability to prioritize 
  • Time they spend working 
  • Workload
  • Well-being 

And just in case you work with leaders who don’t believe any of these metrics matter and only want the hard ROI number (which I would argue is the wrong way of thinking about this), there is compelling evidence that great managers beget top-notch performance. Improving manager capability has a positive impact on driving well-being, engagement, productivity, and performance.

Do your managers have the skills they need?

The issue is that there is a capability gap. First-time managers on the front line manage nearly as much as two-thirds of the workforce, and research shows over half of these managers don’t get adequate training to prepare them for these roles. Only 26% of managers say they’re highly skilled at fostering individual and team engagement, according to Glint research. LinkedIn and Glint research has shown that across Asia, nearly 40% want more time with their managers.

This capability deficit is exacerbated by the common practice of promoting high-performing employees whose strong skills as individual contributors may not automatically translate into good people leadership. The negative impact of a poor manager may persist because organizations often focus on overcomplicated training programs aimed at building people’s leadership competencies, burdening them with more things that feel outside of their day-to-day. What we have seen consistently is that leading and developing people for success comes down to building better habits as a manager. Whether you are an engineering manager, a sales manager, or a manager at a manufacturing plant, the habits that lead to people success are the same.

Effective managers rely on four People Success habits

Why habits? Put simply, habits are sustainable. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg notes that almost 40% of our actions each day are the result of habits, not decisions. These are often embedded into the way we approach life at a subconscious level. By providing frameworks or routines to trigger certain habits, we are more likely to see successful change. 

At Glint, we’ve found there are four foundational habits that power people-centric organizations and play a pivotal role in effectiveness management. They are:

  1. Giving managers focused and frequent feedback helps them better understand their teams and themselves.
  2. These fuel quality conversations, which capture the needs of the business and the individual.
  3. Great conversations help managers better focus and set goals that help the individual become more aligned and prioritize better.
  4. By completing great business and developmental goals, employees learn and grow, which is critical to both their engagement and their success.

Conversations are crucial

More details about each of the habits are in this People Success playbook, but let me say a bit more about the conversations habit. My experience as a People Scientist and as a people manager has taught me that this habit, when done right, can be the catalyst for People Success. 

Remember the list of burnout signal factors I mentioned earlier? We asked people how much time they spend talking about these topics—growth, career development, well-being—in their manager one-on-one meetings, and it turns out that it’s not nearly enough. It gets worse as we look further up in the organization, signaling that leaders aren’t role modeling these behaviors themselves.

I’ve felt this struggle myself. When there are escalations to deal with, project updates to get, and emails to respond to, it’s not always top of mind to check in on how someone is doing. But I’ve made it intentional (role modeled by my own manager) and seen what an impact it has had on my ability to be the manager my team needs. You can assume a lot about how someone is doing without knowing they might need support or feedback in a way you didn’t think about.

So, as we go into 2021, perhaps the simplest and most impactful habit we can cultivate to improve manager capability is that of frequent, quality conversations. Give them simple scripts and templates to follow, so they can practice. Before they know it, it’s a habit.

Learn more about developing people managers to deliver People Success.