In the age of COVID-19 and with a recession looming, Professor Richard Saundry and Professor Paul Latreille from the University of Sheffield argue that making sure that managers have the skills to deal with workplace conflict has never been more important.

The lockdown of the last three months has thrown up enormous challenges for employers as they try to continue to operate as safely and normally as possible or find their way through the unprecedented but byzantine maze of the UK government’s various support schemes designed to preserve jobs and incomes. Much of the pressure has been experienced by line managers, faced with looking after the wellbeing of their teams while also worrying about the health of themselves and their families.

While it may be tempting to see the easing of lockdown restrictions as a resumption of normality, the new ‘normal’ for those managing on the frontline will be defined by a number of key issues: first, many managers are going to have to come to terms with remote working; second, as the economy starts to reopen, conflict which has been largely suppressed during the pandemic will quickly emerge, particularly as critical decisions around employment have to be faced with the winding down of the Job Retention Scheme; and third, the damage done to the UK economy by COVID19 is forecast by the OECD to be larger than any other developed country, with a reduction in GDP greater than any other recession, outside of wartime.

One of the potential consequences of the inevitable post-COVID downturn will be cuts to training budgets, and in particular investment in the skills and capabilities of line managers. In addition, social distancing will make traditional models of face-to-face training problematic. However, this has troubling implications both for the ability of organisations to respond to the current crisis and also for productivity and performance in the longer-term. We already know that problems with managerial quality are one explanation for the UK’s poor productivity pre-Coronavirus. The government’s industrial strategy, published in 2017, acknowledges that ‘our managers are, on average, less proficient, than many competitors’, while Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England, has argued that improving the quality of management can have a significant positive impact on productivity.

Even before the Coronavirus outbreak, the challenges faced by line managers were becoming more complex. Responsibility for managing people has been progressively devolved by increasingly remote HR functions while growing pressure to manage performance has amplified the need for difficult conversations and heightened the risks of bullying and harassment. A recent CIPD survey found that only 4 in 10 managers had received any training in people management skills, while the proportion of managers trained in having difficult conversations with their staff has fallen in the last five years.

As Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom, and John Van Reenen have suggested, organisations have been enticed by notions of leadership while neglecting managerial competency.  Managers who have the skills to spot emerging problems and have high quality conversations with staff members are not only more likely to resolve conflict quickly and efficiently but also to build trust and maximise employee engagement. While good leaders are undeniably important in times of crisis, UK organisations need managers who can build and sustain positive and productive relationships.  Rather than seeing training and development as an easy target in the quest for cost savings, organisations must find creative ways to build managerial capability in a new era of social distance.

Richard Saundry Professor of HRM and Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield