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It is a phenomenon that has become known as “the flattening”: tech companies which hired middle managers in droves during the pandemic boom are now slicing out the layer as they make mass job cuts.

Meta in particular is following a trend set by Elon Musk, who wiped out scores of middle management roles as soon as he acquired Twitter for $44bn last October.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has said the company is “flattening our org structure and removing some layers of middle management to make decisions faster”.

But across the tech sector, the position, valued by some workers as a vital bridge between a company’s bosses and its staff, but mocked by others as the height of bureaucratic mediocrity, is now in peril. Tech companies, which have made more than 170,000 lay-offs this year, according to the crowdsourced database layoffs.fyi, have focused in on the role as they aim to improve efficiency and cut costs.

As the pandemic boosted earnings at online platforms, companies faced fierce competition to hire staff, and started to offer more middle management roles and faster promotions, according to Francesco Barosi, global leader of the technology, media and telecommunications practice at the consultancy AlixPartners.

This “title creep”, as he described it, resulted in a larger number of young middle managers with two or three people directly reporting to them — where previously there were fewer such roles, each with seven or eight reports. “During Covid, middle managers became more like coaches and had a much smaller span of control,” said Barosi.

One Meta middle manager agreed the title had become seen by some staff at Big Tech companies as a “professional credential” that might help facilitate a move to a more senior role at a start-up, for example.

“When you leave here, everyone assumes you’re going to go and run things [elsewhere],” the person said. “It created a lot of people who wanted to become managers.”

But the increasingly bloated “middle” had led to inefficiencies and drawn out decision-making at some companies, with more workers having a say, while struggling to communicate among themselves, Barosi said. “Highly fragmented organisations create uncertainty and lag between an opportunity, a decision and an action.” 

That inefficiency became particularly obvious after the shift to remote working during the pandemic. Another Meta employee said middle managers working from home were keen to demonstrate to executives that they were still valuable, resulting in them attending as many virtual meetings as possible to increase their own visibility internally.

As a result, there were “too many people on too many calls”, the person said, describing the phenomenon as a type of “digital presenteeism”.

On Blind, a forum for tech workers to post anonymously, one staff member at Meta wrote that the tech sector had become too bureaucratic, a far cry from the company’s early “move fast and break things” mantra: “We made this bed for ourselves. Became the thing we mocked old corporate companies for.”

The person added: “Too many people think their job is planning, enforcing process, building empires, setting up checkpoints, writing documents, fighting over which projects they get, reviewing the work of others, and not enough doing heads-down . . . work.” 

One industry insider echoed those sentiments, arguing that Silicon Valley had increasingly facilitated everyone getting “chiefs of staff” in a similar way to bureaucratic government agencies, offering jobs merely to create work for people to manage.

The person suggested that career progression should be decoupled from the number of people an employee manages. The manager’s role should be to drive high performance as a leader, rather than an addendum on their everyday job as part of getting a promotion, they said.

Still, some argued it was too soon to call time on the middle manager role.

The position is “being recast” but “there’s going to be some implications that we haven’t thought about yet”, said Christy Pruitt-Haynes, global head of talent and performance at human resources consultancy NeuroLeadership Institute.

Middle managers had the role of “passing on the concerns of the many to the ears of the few”, she said, meaning that leaders may now lose the important connectors to the rest of their organisations.

Such shake-ups were also “going to send a message to [workers] that ‘we don’t have anywhere to grow to’”, she added, meaning the company may lose talented staff prematurely and suffer from knowledge gaps.

As a result, in the longer term “we are going to have to bring some of these positions back”, she predicted.

“Organisations really need to define what skills [they are] losing, how do [they] rightsize and replace with the right people . . . In the long run, is this a real saving or efficiency?” Pruitt-Haynes said.

Some staff, however, while frustrated by the job cuts, are hopeful the overhaul will pave the way for rapid innovation to return to companies such as Meta and Twitter.

“I think in every case, it is easier to remove middle management to save cost [and] leverage younger, cheaper, hungrier, more malleable [talent] less likely to get a job elsewhere, so more dedicated,” said one former Twitter employee, pointing to Musk’s decision to consolidate the workforce to “loyalists” with lots of direct reports.

In the short term, more disruption is likely. The former Twitter employee said Musk’s brutal approach had “destabilised” the company.

Another Meta worker said: “No one is clear on anything”, adding that their manager’s workload had increased after the lay-offs.

The changes are unlikely to affect everyone equally. For Meta managers with a bigger team of direct reports and their reports in turn, their jobs are likely to become more stressful once all those roles are consolidated under them alone, the Meta middle manager said.

But for people with smaller teams, it may present a positive opportunity for the manager to work more directly with junior staff, the person added.

Meanwhile, the industry insider said there were still lots of people jostling to become involved in decision-making to try to look relevant because they knew further lay-offs were coming.

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