Front-line managers are key to hybrid work engagement

Front-line managers are key to hybrid work engagement
Mar 15, 2021
Often overlooked, line managers play a crucial role in mitigating negative employee sentiment while fostering an inclusive and strong workforce culture.

As more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, most companies are preparing to—once again—readjust approaches to where and how their employees will work. Unlike the urgent decisions that happened when the pandemic started, companies now have more time to be thoughtful about how to deploy their workforce. Regardless of the type of on-site/work-from-home models selected, many leaders are rightfully concerned about maintaining or improving employee engagement through yet another change.

For the last 12 months, executives have learned to quickly implement enterprise-wide policies and communicate broadly to outline new operation models, instill confidence, and convey empathy to global workforces. As teams are asked to readjust to new or hybrid work environments this year, the direction will need to be more customized to the varying expectations of how employee groups will operate and collaborate. At the center of these adjustments are front-line managers, whose role in employee engagement takes on more importance because they have the most direct connection to the people who will likely experience the most disruption, again.

Front-line managers are often overlooked

Equipping line managers as key communicators will be a shift for many organizations. A global survey shows employee communication leaders prioritize their focus on executives and other senior team members, while communication with line managers often receives the lowest priority.

In many cases, that is a mistake that could slow employee adoption of new initiatives. Dr. Candace Blair Cronin, ICF’s Director of human capital, says supervisors play a critical role in employee engagement. “Research supports that when employees perceive they are well supported by their immediate supervisor, they are more likely to be dedicated to their work and have a stronger perception that the overall organization values and is supportive of them,” Candace says. “Both employee engagement and perceived supervisor support are closely intertwined psychological factors that directly impact how employees perform and whether they choose to stay with an organization for the long haul.”

Captured into two categories, here are five approaches that can help line managers be more effective at engaging and communicating with employees, especially during upcoming changes to the work environment.

Category 1: Develop new methods to conquer diversified work environments

Maintaining hybrid work environments risks letting two organizational cultures emerge within the same team. Identifying how to maintain effective collaboration and social cohesion will be important for teams that may be functioning in varying degrees of in-office and work-from-home environments.

  • Help managers define and communicate new remote and on-site work expectations – Work directly with supervisors now to understand the impact on their team of changing expectations around work location. Consider what in-person meetings will be required, how meetings will run when some workers are in-person and others are not, and determine how technology will be used in different scenarios. Build customized training sessions together with managers to educate teams about these new expectations. And finally, develop new language and mantras that start to form a culture around these revised ways of working.  
  • Coach managers on how to avoid proximity bias – Proximity bias is the false assumption that employees who work in the office will be more productive than their work-from-home colleagues. As some workers return to the office, Jackie Attwood-Dupont, an ICF Next expert in change management, says training may be needed to help managers apply fair standards across remote and in-office workers. There’s also an opportunity to help them adopt new ways of working that are more inclusive of all team members. Jackie advises organizations to establish a plan to monitor not only hybrid team performance, but also team member sentiment about their ability to collaborate across work modes.

Category 2: Don’t just build a narrative, build a dialogue

Organizations often focus on developing the story around executive decisions. A better practice is to create multiple levels of two-way conversations to build trust and better solutions. 

  • Develop an advisory team – We’ve heard it before, “If only someone would have asked.” Establish a group of line leaders to be an on-call focus group to review rollout plans and change communication in advance. These supervisors can help you customize the communication in ways that make it more salient to their groups or better yet, help adjust the approach to avoid unintended consequences. 
  • Equip managers to lead team conversations – Prepare your managers in advance to support the enterprise-wide rollout of new information or organizational changes. Without violating critical confidentiality, it’s important supervisors are given toolkits early to cascade and interpret the information for their team. More importantly, provide coaching for supervisors on how to lead conversations to solicit input and to also provide evidence that their input is escalated and given serious consideration. That provides the psychological safety employees need to keep the feedback coming.  
  • Help deepen human connection To increase employees’ sense of belonging, manager training should evolve along with the hybrid work environment. A new study on human connection in the virtual workplace says feeling connected to one’s coworkers—as well as direct manager—is an important predictor of being not only engaged but also inspired at work. Among the study’s research-based solutions is the need for managers to share more personal feelings and updates during check-ins and to permit schedule flexibility. Your managers may need more guidance on how best to do that. 

So, how prepared is your organization to use line managers as key facilitators? Here are strategic questions to ask:

  1. How might you include front-line managers more in the strategic communications planning of the organization?
  2. How can your organization use or improve trainings and toolkits to equip managers to help lead authentic change communication? 
  3. How has your organization prepared to understand and mitigate factors that will impact employee engagement in a hybrid work environment? 
Answering these questions is a solid starting point to enhance all future employee communication and engagement while also building the skills of the team leaders closest to your workforce.
ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the author
  1. Matt Silverman, Senior Partner, Brand and Reputation Strategy

    Matt is an expert in brand, marketing, and corporate communications strategy with more than 20 years of experience. View bio

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