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Time to Free the Regulatory Middle Manager

The shift to remote work has taken its toll on us all, but middle managers have faced particular challenges over the last year. A global survey of over 3,000 remote knowledge workers found that middle managers (defined as those managing 1-6 people) are 46% less satisfied with their jobs than senior executives (those managing at least 15 people), they have struggled more than twice as much as executives when it comes to maintaining a sense of belonging, and they feel more stressed and less productive than their more senior colleagues. While some of this is no doubt a temporary reaction to the myriad stresses associated with the pandemic, the data suggests that several factors driving regulatory middle managers’ increased stress levels and decreased job satisfaction are likely here to stay. Specifically, as organizations shift toward a more distributed workforce long-term, the traditional role of a regulatory middle manager monitoring productivity, optimizing individual performance, ensuring processes are followed, routine reports is becoming increasingly redundant in two key ways: Digital infrastructure is replacing the physical office. Much of the traditional role of a regulatory manager has been to support communication and collaboration for employees that might otherwise struggle to effectively share information. But when that communication moves from a meeting room to a digital channel, it becomes much easier to automate the documentation and sharing of key information and decisions. This dramatically increases transparency, but it also eliminates both the need and effectiveness of many information sharing mechanisms that would otherwise be the purview of middle management. Measuring output has gotten easier. The ability to communicate clearly and rally teams remotely has become critical. At the same time, the shift to digital tools has dramatically simplified the process of tracking and measuring output. These tandem shifts mean that the traditional management approach is unnecessary, and in many cases, counterproductive. From Routers to Leaders The good news is, regulatory middle managers still have a key role to play that role just needs to evolve. For decades, these middle managers have been human routers: tracking project status, moving information across teams, process compliance, projects oversight, and serving as intermediaries between junior employees and senior leaders. In a remote work context, this communication is harder than ever, but the tactics that will be most effective in managing it have changed. Rather than manual ways, managers should identify and implement digital tools that can automate and complement human efforts. Managers will be both more effective and less stressed if they leverage tools (digital or automation or workflow based) optimized for tracking, and then focus their own energy on building teams and developing talent. Too often, regulatory middle managers are used to paper over broken business processes, with key tasks dependent on individuals’ institutional memory rather than sustainable procedures. Fixing these process gaps depends on embracing digital tools so that the humans in the loop can focus on what they do best whether that’s technical expertise or people management. As digital tools enable the freer, more democratic flow of information, there will no longer be any need for regulatory managers whose sole job is to route information between the top and bottom of the company.