In the new world of hybrid work, how has the manager's role changed? Do we even need managers in an era in which we choose when we work, where we work, and even how we work? Our answer is yes.
We have increased choice in our working lives, but we also have increased stress, uncertainty, pace, and pressure . Over the last two years, our roles – professional, family, community – have become confused, and we have had to ‘switch hats’ too quickly and frequently. Many of us are still struggling to update our boundaries and balance our personal, professional, and relational selves. Virtual work may allow us to work from anywhere, but it also means that work follows us everywhere, so how do we know when to stop? This is where human-centred management comes in.
The need for managers hasn’t changed, but the toolbox for managers has. Managing now involves enquiry, empathy, dialogue, and holding space open. It’s about knowing your people well as individuals so that you can empower them to find their boundaries, create their definitions of balance and success, and maximise the joy, energy, and discretionary effort they can give in return.
Below are four key ways in which managers can do this:
Protecting people’s energy
Having a human connection with someone means you will get the best out of them. Still, it also means that you can negotiate an individual contract together, with work expectations tailored to their needs rather than dictated by blanket policy. We’re not clones, we’re sparkling, dynamically different individuals, and what works for one of us won’t work for others. Knowing someone well enables you to outline individual expectations of output, goals, and limitations. Ask yourself: What does this person love doing? How do they work best? How many great working hours are they capable of every week? How much work is too much for them? Protecting people’s energy is a manager’s primary role – it is the definition of a human-centred approach.
Giving permission is a crucial part of helping someone understand how much work is enough: permission to not be a superhero, to delegate excess work, to speak frankly, and to say no. As a manager, creating a psychologically safe space in which people feel able to be honest about when they have reached their limits is essential.
Furthermore, when we give each other permission to be human, we recognise that the isolation of virtual working – for all its benefits – is not necessarily a natural way of working. We are social creatures. Fewer opportunities to see colleagues in person, to enjoy each other’s company, to have a laugh, and celebrate or commiserate together can take its toll on our sense of belonging. Sometimes working remotely can lead to increased stress and fewer opportunities to balance it out. Set against an increasingly volatile background of global crisis, this can create a very joyless situation, and it’s essential that managers permit their people to be open about feeling sad, despondent, or demotivated at work – not to have to pretend that everything is okay.
Human-centred managers allow people to be honest about how they are feeling, but they also make joy a priority. When work has become less joyful, managers must help people think about how they are finding joy elsewhere, whether through sport, hobbies, learning, family time, or volunteer work. When these activities collide with work, the manager’s responsibility is to find a solution, drafting up an individual work contract that makes space for both work and joy to occur. Because when we feel joy, we feel energised, which gets gifted onwards in our work.
Making purposeful choices
The opportunities of virtual or hybrid working can feel overwhelming. Work no longer needs to be done at the office or even at a desk; you can work at the park, the beach, a ski resort in the mountains, or at a friend’s kitchen table. It can be done at any time, in any time zone. But as the freedom to choose increases, the lines between work and play fade, and we can end up trying to do both at once – all the time .
Human-centred management involves helping people understand their limits and make active choices about their working lives. It’s not about where or when, it’s about what. It is about assisting people in realising that, yes, they can work at the beach, but is it where they do their best work? And is work really what they want to do whilst at the beach? The focus is the key, and human-centred managers are intentional about helping people pursue it.
Hybrid working is here to stay, and so is ‘management’. We believe that management needs to take a front seat in this time and place, supporting hybrid and virtual workers through empathy, attentiveness, and frequent contact that allows them to understand the humans they manage. Hybrid managers need to embrace the role of gatekeeper and guide – helping their colleagues locate boundaries, purpose, and balance so that they can do their work and know how much is enough. This human-centred management approach forges strong connections with people, paying dividends in loyalty, retention, and discretionary effort. When managers prioritise their people’s best interests and go the extra mile to help make their working lives joyful, energised, and psychologically safe, their people are more likely to go the extra mile in return – this is the 21st-century human-centred employment contract.