Posted On November 30, 2016 By Helen D’Arcy

The role of the Operations Manager has become more complex and shoulders broader responsibility in both the private and public sectors. Operational Managers are feeling overworked sometimes sinking under the pressure, and frequently not understanding why. They've been hit with what we can call a "double whammy" of change in workload and responsibility that is not well recognised.

The first “hit” is the changing role of specialist units.  Most organisations traditionally consist of “Operations” and a range of “Specialist” functions. Typically, these include Human Resources, Finance, and Purchasing amongst others.

Beyond business as usual

Originally the specialist units performed the administrative, day-to-day operational work associated with their function. Invoices, leave forms and other paperwork was transferred through to them for processing, leaving Operational Managers free to focus on production or service delivery.

Over the past 20 years, with a rapid increase in the past 10, IT solutions have been introduced that streamline and simplify the specialist processes. The IT solutions enable input at the point of collection. They reduce paperwork and speed up processing, achieving efficiencies across the organisation.  The overall workload for a business has reduced, but it has not gone away.

Instead, a significant volume has now shifted silently to become a role and responsibility of the Operational Manager.

In addition, improvements in technology and change in business practice mean Operational Managers today are also much less likely to have administration support.

A consequence of the first hit is a follow-on second hit. Organisations have utilised the excess capacity in specialist units to meet the increasing demands of today’s environment, changing their primary responsibility from being a support role for operational units to a role that drives organisational improvement.

Specialist units now focus on implementing strategic initiatives, generating new policy and procedures and setting up special projects. Frequently an impact of these initiatives is more work for the Operational Managers throughout their business units.

And there are even further challenges!

Matrix organisation structures now exist where Operational Managers report to multiple “specialist” Senior Managers – managers who often now find themselves with few direct reports. Or the organisation has incorporated Business Partners into their structures.

They all rely upon Operational Managers to implement their initiatives and report back on their KPIs.

And not only that, today’s workforce is extremely demanding of their managers. Not only are managers expected to accommodate the different work styles of the Baby Boomer, X, Y and I generations, their team members also expect them to have great vision, be motivating, develop their people, organise work well, deal with any problems arising, and remain empathetic and accommodating to individuals’ personal situations.

Operational Managers are being squeezed. They are the narrow neck in the egg timer.  A lot of strategic work being pushed down, and the increasing demands of team members and clients pushing more work up.

No matter which way you rotate the timer there is still the same pressure point.

Organisations pay a high price when today’s requirements on Operational Managers are not managed effectively.  The obvious is compensation claims brought about by workplace stress and the loss of good talent through being in untenable positions.

A hidden, more insidious cost is the one associated with managers who ‘tread water.’ These managers are not coping with their role, but nevertheless remain at work performing only a fraction of the job requirements and managing to hide the damage to the organisation and its clients – at least for a while.

Life and work have changed and the clock cannot be simply turned back, but organisations can breed Operational Managers who are survivors and star performers in current times.

Operational Managers need to be adept across a full range of management functions: HR, Workplace Relations, WHS, Finance, Risk Management, Project Management, and Customer Service. Operational Managers must take time to update themselves in these areas, and the organisation must recognise and support them.

Individual needs will vary to achieve this. It could be coaching from the specialists, specific management training, reading management literature, or participating in management networks in order to stay across the full range of management skills.

Operations Managers must also be highly switched on to employee development. Increased workload requires increased delegation. Develop team members’ strengths. Share tasks that will be motivating. Stretch people to reach their potential. Delegate work in a meaningful way – and the benefits of this approach will be felt across the board.

An Operational Manager’s role can be isolating – especially in matrixed organisations. Make the opportunity to collaborate with other Operational Managers to share work practices, success stories and seek feedback on any challenges in a non-threatening, non-political environment. Monthly forums might be worthwhile where Operational Managers discuss specific areas of work and specialists are brought in as invited.

Organisations must recognise this issue and provide a framework and culture that enables Operations Managers to take action on the above.

You may not be able to halt the evolution in the modern workplace, but you can help Operational Managers to not only survive the hits, but to rise above them and take on starring roles where the enterprise needs them most.