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Why People Managers May Be the New Employee Experience Heroes

We are living in a time when the fundamentals of work are being boldly questioned and tested. Our present-day conversations about changes in the workplace would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. Recent headlines chronicle the return to office, “quiet quitting,” the labor shortage, gig economy, employee expectations, employee mental health, and even the morality of work.

But there is one organizational role that continues to be the mainstay of the employee experience: the people manager. In today’s rapidly evolving workplace, job satisfaction and employee engagement are strongly linked to the quality of the relationship an employee has with their direct manager. As it’s often been said: people leave managers, not companies. A Gallup study found that “70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.”

“The manager is the employee’s first line to experiencing work and the organization,” says Dr. Lauren Park, human resources (HR) research scientist on the SAP SuccessFactors Growth and Insights Team. The team conducted a study of 31 HR leaders across multiple regions and industries to find out how the role of the people manager is transforming to improve the employee experience. “With recent shifts in the social and economic space, we see this [role] becoming even more important.”

Drivers of Change in People Management

The team’s research identified three driving forces behind the transformation of people management. For the roles and industries in which it is relevant, the biggest change is the shift to hybrid work. Managers and employees no longer share the same workspace, which means that communication has to be more intentional to overcome the lack of nuanced information from in-person interactions. Also, managers now need to focus on managing outcomes rather than processes.

Changing employee expectations are also transforming people management. Employees are rethinking how work fits into their lives and have become more vocal in demanding better experiences. “We see a power dynamic shift from some managers looking at their team to make them successful to managers really being there to make those individuals successful and to help improve their work and non-work experiences,” Park says.

Technology is also shaping the role of the people manager to be much more human-centric. As administrative tasks become automated, people managers will be able to spend more time on people-focused work, like fostering growth and development, improving team culture, and demonstrating caring.

People-Oriented Competencies for the Future

People managers in the future of work will need very different competencies from the task overseers and administrators that characterized some people management practices in the past. SAP SuccessFactors researchers have given considerable thought to which competencies people managers will need to be successful in building employee engagement.

“With the input of our customer research participants, we developed a competency model of what people management looks like in this new world of work,” says Park, who will present these research insights in the session “Transform People Management to Improve Employee Experiences” at SuccessConnect 2022 on September 14.

“The foundational competency required for people management is and has always been the ability to communicate and to influence others. But what is becoming more and more central to a manager’s role is demonstrating concern and care, not only for their team but for themselves. This is where we see a shift – people managers are expected to do this more than ever before, and many don’t feel prepared to take on this role.”

Other competencies include fostering growth and development, including continuously upskilling themselves and their team. It is also up to the people manager to build a positive team culture that fosters psychological safety and encourages growth. The traditional competency of specifying and evaluating work remains important for the role of the people manager, including knowing when and how to give employees autonomy to complete their work in balance with organizational needs.

Developing the Next Generation of People Managers 

Organizations will need to take care to identify and develop employees to be people managers. Some of the personal traits that are surfacing in feedback from HR leaders include adaptability, empathy, resilience, conscientiousness, honesty, humility, and a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

With consideration to these competencies and traits, it becomes clear that not everyone is meant to be a people manager. “Traditionally, organizations chose the best high-performing individual contributors to become people managers,” Park says. She notes that this approach has been controversial in the past and says, “The consensus is that is not going to be successful in the future.”

As an alternative, those high-performing individual contributors may soon get a progression track through the organization of their own that precludes taking on people management responsibilities. However, talented employees who are tapped for the role of people manager can further develop their skills through coaching, job shadowing, and mentoring. Deliberate succession planning needs to be in place to ensure that those employees with recognized people management skills are effectively placed in new roles.

Each organization will differ in its approach, but Park believes there is an urgent need to identify and develop new people managers who can improve employee experiences. “We saw varying levels of maturity in the customers we spoke to,” says Park, who recently talked with an HR leader who had implemented a parallel progression path for individual contributors and people managers.

“I’d say it’s becoming increasingly more important, perhaps exponentially so, as we see that changing employee expectations continue to shape the way organizations are developing their policies and strategies.”


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