For some industries, front line supervisors rise up the ranks by gaining technical experience. Working 15 years, an employee could move up to supervisor because he or she has more experience than most of the workers supervised. This historical picture has certainly changed. Younger workers can learn through education some of what used to take 10 to 15 years to learn as an apprentice. In addition, the accelerated pace of change and increasing competition create the need for broader supervisory skills. This has put pressure on companies to hire and promote supervisors who have the relationship building, collaboration and technology skills to run today’s production departments.
This dynamic makes it more likely that young supervisors will be directing the work of employees who might be older and more technically experienced. Competent supervisory support to older technical workers requires that supervisors move away from technical problem-solving and bring a broader skill set to the table.
One avenue by which a supervisor can build support for and relationships with direct reports has to do with how supervisees spend their time. Employees are typically concerned with department operations – answering phones, solving problems and producing materials or reports. Being immersed in the day-to-day allows little time to step back and improve processes or think long-term. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for a caring and observant supervisor to lend a hand. Making things easier or creating opportunities for better supervisee success promotes trust and appreciation and can lay a foundation for employee loyalty and engagement.
1. Time and attention
Most employees want to feel that their employer values their work and most want to be a part of a team working toward common goals. No matter the age of the worker or the supervisor, the boss can provide positive feedback and encouragement. Perhaps it’s been a while since the employee has had regular evaluations. Maybe the former supervisor was just “one of the guys” who didn’t take a leadership posture. In any event, a supervisor can spend time with his or her staff, listening to the challenges they face and understanding the dynamics of the entire department. Employees will respond to someone who listens and values their ideas and attends to their challenges.
Generally, though not always, younger supervisors have technology ideas and skills that can prevent errors (what employee wouldn’t want to decrease error rates?), eliminate data entry tedium or eliminate unnecessary paperwork. Wise use of technology can make employee work life easier. Older workers may (not always) have difficulty learning to use some of the automation tools companies are likely to implement. They can resist the need for new tools or if they do support changes, they may be embarrassed about their slow learning curve. A supervisor can be instrumental in both explaining the financial or quality reasons for technological improvements and supporting increased technology skills. Sometimes it’s just walking an employee through opening an Excel spreadsheet and making sure the right things are at the employee’s finger tips (icons on a desktop). In a more complicated situation, identifying the right training program and advocating for training time and money is helpful.
3. Efficiency and work analysis
Increasing competition and the high cost of doing business places high value on efficiency. Supervisors can review workflow and eliminate waste. Less reliance on paper and outdated processes can make work more pleasurable. Eliminating duplication or extra steps improves efficiency and can positively affect the bottom line. Perhaps workers have ideas for increasing effectiveness but no one’s listened or maybe they just lack the skills or authority to change the process.
4. Obtaining resources
As the business environment changes, lack of resources, over-lean staffing and fluctuations in workload present challenges. A supervisor can be helpful in a number of ways. He/she can analyze workload fluctuations, prepare analysis of staffing ratios and develop scenarios where additional resources – either temporary or permanent – would be justified by workloads.
5. Emotional support
Particularly in high volume, high production environments stress and burnout can be a regular part of an employee’s job evolution. Supervisors can help in multiple ways – noticing the signs of burnout before they get so bad that an employee quits or becomes disgruntled; resolving some of the physical and psychological demands that contribute to burnout; and finally, encouraging employees to take their paid time off. Production oriented work sites carry the added pressure of worry for what will happen during the absence. Employees worry about things falling apart and client relationships strained. Then there are issues like emails building up unattended. None of these are insurmountable but employees distracted by daily matters can’t always step back to see them as solvable. Supervisors need to listen to reasons why employees don’t feel they can take time off and address them one-by-one.
6. Lending a strategic focus
Focus on day-to-day challenges, again, makes it difficult to see the big picture or to think very long-term. As a supervisor, one has the advantage of seeing things from the bigger landscape. Understanding relationship problems among departments may prove instrumental to improving collaboration and eliminating conflict. Employees in one department may not have the authority to change or improve their relationships with other departments. Supervisors can reach out to peer supervisors and employees in closely related departments to review processes and remove barriers.
Supervisors often have the time to review trends and predictions. They also know more about the company’s long-range plans and goals. Knowing these along with understanding today’s problems put supervisors in a position to map the way to long-term success. Knowing where you need to go and what’s broken today is how planners set a path to achieving long-range goals.
There may be a learning curve in a new relationship between young supervisors and older, technical employees. Early setbacks are likely but eventually, one open-minded supervisee will help you promote your own value. Successes will demonstrate supervisory value.
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