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The one thing employees want most from their managers in a hybrid office

Micromanagement is one of the top three reasons employees resign. Microsoft’s chief people officer explains how to keep your employees.

The one thing employees want most from their managers in a hybrid office
[Photo: Andrew Neel/Pexels]
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Sometimes, it takes big change to teach big lessons. In my experience, the type of change that creates lasting transformation is often unexpected and nonnegotiable. When COVID-19 sent employees to work from home we were jarred into a once-in-a-lifetime change. Organizations were forced to adapt—quickly—and for an uncertain amount of time. And much of that responsibility fell on the shoulders of managers.

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Now that we’re over a year into this forced change, we’ve had time to adapt, assess, and adjust the traditional work model. And in this new model, two things are crystal clear—the flexibility we’ve become accustomed to is here to stay, and the role of the manager is more critical than ever. Taken together, this new era of work requires a new way of management—one where the micromanager is obsolete, and the modern manager runs on trust.

Trust begins with listening

As we’ve developed our flexible hybrid model at Microsoft, we’ve listened to our employees and learned what they want and need—and what’s most important to overall job satisfaction. And what’s on the top of their list? Manager trust.

We know managers have always been important, but during a time of uncertainty, their role is emphasized. A manager’s words, actions and decisions set the tone. They are crucial to creating a supportive and productive environment that empowers employees with the flexibility, autonomy, and trust that defines the hybrid workplace.

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Our external research of over 30,000 people in 31 countries shows 41% of employees are considering an employer change this year and 46% are likely to move because they can now work remotely. Dubbed the Great Reshuffle, the things that used to matter to employees have evolved—teaming and collaboration are critical, but autonomy and trust are equally as important. Additional research shows micromanagement is one of the top three reasons employees resign. As teams adjust to more flexible work, avoiding unnecessary micromanagement, while still driving accountability, will be vital to retaining our best employees.

Despite one of the most chaotic and challenging years yet, 9 in 10 of Microsoft’s employees say they have confidence in the effectiveness of their immediate manager—a 3% increase from previous years—and an all-time high for the company. When we looked deeper into the data, we saw a big part of this uptick was because our managers took the time to model flexibility, coached employees on prioritization, and truly demonstrated care toward their employees’ unique needs.

The new challenge for us will be sustaining, even improving, these numbers as we continue to embrace hybrid work. It won’t be easy. A recent Gartner study found that only 44% of employees are confident their leaders and managers can lead effectively in the aftermath of the pandemic. It’s one thing to double down on care for employees during an in-the-moment crisis, but how do we keep up morale, culture, and trusted support when we’re nearing two years of uncertainty and change?

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Creating a culture of trust

As more employees choose to work in new locations and embrace more flexible work hours, our managers will be tasked with embracing flexibility and rethinking the way their team works, or face the inevitable truth: losing our best people to companies who do. Here is what we are asking our managers to do to accelerate the culture of trust and empowerment we aspire to. We are taking a learn-it-all approach, knowing that we don’t yet have all the answers. But by sharing what we’re doing, I hope we can all learn from each other as we embark on this next era of work.

1. Model, coach, care.
About three years ago, we introduced a manager expectations framework for delivering success through empowerment and accountability that asks managers to: “Model, Coach, Care.” I can’t tell you how much we’ve relied on it during such a tough year, particularly for managers to model well-being and self-care, coach employees on setting priorities, and probably most importantly, care for employees. Embracing all three elements are key to avoiding micromanagement in a flexible work environment.

For example, our data shows managers at Microsoft plan to go into the office a bit more than nonmanagers. With this insight, it’s more important than ever to be clear in your expectations and model the flexibility you want for your employees.

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Secondly, coaching combined with clear, measurable goals are the blueprints for avoiding micromanagement. We train our managers to act as a coach, standing on the sidelines providing feedback and helping employees through tough situations by asking questions and removing roadblocks, not doing the work for them or scrutinizing the details of how or when the work gets done. Employees also recognize and appreciate managers who set clear goals with them, and then focus on impact over activity.

And finally, the real secret for manager success is genuine care. Empathizing with each employee’s unique needs and experiences in and outside of work, will go a long way in creating an environment where people feel safe and trusted to work in a flexible way.

2. One-on-one conversations
We’ve asked managers to have a one-on-one conversation with each employee dedicated to discussing how they’d like to work in our new hybrid model. Unsurprisingly, when we asked employees their top reasons for coming to the office and top reasons for working from home, things like team collaboration and avoiding commute were top choices, respectively. Interestingly though, things like focus time and well-being were on both lists. Some employees find focus time and improved well-being by working from home, others by going into the office. When managers are clear in their desire to support individual work styles, while also being transparent about what’s required to achieve business success, it instills understanding and trust among teams.

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3. Team agreements
Deciding how you would like to work together as a team eases uncertainty. We’ve asked each team at Microsoft to create a set of team agreements to define the way they’d like to work together in a hybrid world and to help reduce micromanagement, because everyone knows what’s expected. The template encourages teams to align in five areas: availability, communication style, meetings, collaboration, and information (where to save files for example). We’ve asked managers to provide as much flexibility as possible via these agreements. For example, a manager can establish that there are no expectations that everyone will be “always on” during a typical nine-to-five workday, and each team member is trusted to achieve their goals and objectives in a way that balances flexibility with team needs. Another example might be team agreements that establish standard times of the day for meetings, meeting-free days, or days of the week for in-person conversations.

It’s important to recognize that when developing these agreements, managers must also balance the needs of the business, with employee preferences. While we don’t have all the answers and the landscape will certainly evolve, we believe open discussions will be pivotal to help both managers and employees find common ground.

4. Manager Excellence Communities.
Hybrid work will require many managers to build a new skill. And like any new skill, learning from others going through the same transition can be incredibly helpful. At Microsoft, we foster this connection through what we call, “Management Excellence Communities.” It’s a place where managers come together for 90-minute, peer-facilitated sessions focused on a specific topic such as creating a culture of trust or improving team well-being. In each session, managers openly discuss and learn from each other. We also have a podcast called Managers 1:1 where managers can hear from other managers about their successes, failures, and the joys (and challenges) of managing.

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This past year, we’ve also put a big emphasis on updating our manager learning and development programs. New manager courses include solutions for things like coaching team members in person and virtually, having difficult conversations, decision-making during uncertain times, and developing team agreements. So far, we’ve seen the trainings pay off. Managers who completed more than 50% of our core manager learning path received higher manager scores on every manager survey question in our annual employee survey, emphasizing just how critical these learning and development experiences are.

Taking steps into the future of work

There’s no doubt we’ve been down (and are still on) a difficult road. As we keep going towards our new and better destination, it’s managers who will create the roadmap for what flexible work truly means. And on that roadmap, the micromanager doesn’t exist.

As executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Kathleen Hogan empowers 175,000+ global employees to achieve Microsoft’s mission. In her role, she focuses on making Microsoft an exceptional place for employees to work, and ensures that the company is creating a culture that attracts and inspires the world’s most passionate talent.