Why middle managers are feeling the most stressed out during COVID

December 21, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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Plenty of teams have switched to working remotely since March. Now enough time has passed that many are starting to ask: What’s actually working?

That was the topic of a recent virtual panel presented by Fortune and Slack’s Future Forum called “Reimagine Work: New Ways to Lead.”

Brian Elliott, who leads the Future Forum, said that his company’s research showed a stark divide in terms of how different groups of employees are experiencing—and adapting to—remote work. When it came to having stress at work and wrestling with social isolation, “middle managers stood out,” he said. According to his company’s survey of 9,000 knowledge workers around the globe, middle managers were 91% more likely to say they were having trouble working remotely when compared to individuals and senior executives. And while more junior and more senior team members largely felt that they were more productive working remotely, middle managers were 36% below individual contributors on that scale, with only 60% feeling that they could manage their workload.

To blame? While many middle managers lack the extensive networks of their more senior counterparts, they may also have less control over their own schedules, leading to “meeting burnout.” Because of their ages, these mid-career execs are often working parents who are trying to balance caregiving responsibilities that have bled into the workday. Overall, they are “feeling the squeeze even more in this remote work environment,” said Elliott.

Raj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who just authored an HBR cover story on remote work, made the case that the responsibility falls on companies to help mitigate the challenges and opportunities brought about by “work from anywhere,” and doing so successfully involves a rethinking of productivity, communication, and even socializing. He argued that socializing virtually can actually be more effective than relying on the “watercooler,” because it allows you to expand your network far beyond the people you’d generally see day to day at the office. The key, he thinks, are “planned randomized interactions” whereby a company draws a group together for short bursts of time, cutting across hierarchy and geography.

That tracks with what Jenny Johnson, president and CEO of global investment firm Franklin Templeton, has found as well. She says giving individual team leaders the freedom to set their own priorities and processes when it comes to WFH has been key. She’s told her CIOs to “use this time to push the envelope on how you can flexibly work so you’re the one that is poaching talent.” They’ve also experimented with encouraging networking within the company with specific asks. For instance, they’ll say, “We want you to reach out virtually to five people you don’t know before your next meeting.”

Finally, all the panelists endorsed the idea that when you can’t physically work together, you have to work harder to let everyone know what people are working on. Darren Murph, whose job title is head of remote at GitLab, says this kind of transparency is radically important right now. “With no office, people recognize gaps and silos. If you can’t see what people are working on, you feel like you belong less,” he said. Seeing other teams’ goals and progress and status, “makes us feel like we belong to a team.”

Slack’s Elliott added that, especially when faced with those overtaxed middle managers, “don’t be afraid to get super tactical.” He said at his company they’ve “built opportunities for middle managers to get together” to discuss and compare obstacles and solutions. “Private conversations about your workload plus public conversations about your [company] priorities really help with the stress level,” he said.

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