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Middle managers feel trapped in the return-to-office war

September 21, 2022, 3:51 PM UTC
Manager looking frustrated at desk
Managers feel trapped between their bosses' expectations and their workers' desires.
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In the return-to-office war, the middle manager is feeling trapped in, well, the middle.

An executive might send out a hybrid policy memo from a far-off office, but the real heavy lifting comes from the manager who speaks to their team every day. It’s left them balancing their bosses’ expectations with their workers’ wants and needs, reports the Financial Times’ Emma Jacobs. Middle managers are stuck on the ground, figuring out what hybrid plans look like and trying to boost morale while pushing a largely reticent group back to their desks.

Many executives are obsessed with a return to the office, looking to return to the modus operandi even as the pandemic continues. But not every boss thinks the same way; some middle managers align with their workers’ stance on maintaining flexibility. Research from Future Forum shows that younger executives are more concerned about the inequality surrounding remote and in-person work policies, while older executives are focused on productivity. 

Catherine, a middle manager for a financial service company, told Jacobs that she doesn’t understand the need for her company’s hybrid plans. She described being in the middle as “lonely,” as she has received little training to manage a team with different generational experiences.

“I wonder why there’s a push to bring people back? People have closed M&A deals from home. The saving of not traveling and [the impact on the] climate, you have to wonder why it’s a big deal,” she said. 

Jane, a customer service operations manager, also told Jacobs that pushing a return to office based on “mixed messaging” is challenging. “We’re hearing people say, ‘We’d like to encourage teams to come back.’ You need to be clear about why they’re doing it,” she said. “Otherwise, it is just putting pressure on middle managers.”  

The gray area of middle management

Middle managers have always had to switch adeptly between interacting with their bosses and their team. Changing their behavior throughout the day to match workplace and social norms has led to greater rates of depression and anxiety in the middle, finds research from Columbia University and the University of Toronto. The pandemic has made managing even harder, with the pressure to implement hybrid policies only adding more to managers’ plates.

Companies like AppleComcast, and Peloton have been reinstituting their hybrid plans with more urgency after Labor Day weekend. It’s not the first time that companies have tried to push for an office return, but execs seem to mean it more this time around.

Early studies have shown that the majority of workers prefer the flexibility and connection with peers that hybrid work provides. But this fairly new fixture of work has not always been implemented with ease. Consider Google, which had to rethink its souped-up offices to adapt to hybrid work, deal with the influx of new traffic, and help people with missing desks. Yelp CEO and cofounder Jeremy Stoppelman once said hybrid work was “hell,” pointing out that not all workers will be in the office on the same days.

It’s hard to make everyone happy with hybrid plans, and considering that it’s the middle manager often dealing directly with workers, it’s likely they end up fielding the return-to-office gripes.

The increased pressure could be enough to make these in-between bosses join the Great Resignation.  

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