Relationships, Culture, and Burnout Are Rising Leadership Challenges

Just a few months ago, leaders were working around the clock to quickly pivot some, if not all, parts of their business to a virtual workplace. With home wifi interruptions and kids joining meetings, many wondered how effective this radically new work-from-home world could be. But ExecOnline polls of corporate leaders reveal that technical challenges have generally been little more than speedbumps.  Most organizations have been remarkably successful in getting virtual work up and running, and the biggest challenges revolve around people.

This should probably be no surprise — developing strong work relationships and sustaining a positive company culture are chronically tough business problems.  Today, companies face an additional layer of challenges when teams can no longer swivel their chair to ask a question of a coworker, have a quick chat in the kitchen, or go out for a happy hour after work. 

Relationship Ruin, Cultural Crumble

Surveys conducted in April and then again in July indicate we’re getting better at many of the barriers to effective virtual work: productivity is on the rise, and we’re getting used to communicating in novel ways. However, the largest barriers — interpersonal relationships and corporate culture — are getting worse, not better.

As the new normal grows more entrenched and pre-pandemic relationships and organizational culture recede further into the past, corporate “soft tissue” will continue to atrophy, making it incumbent upon leaders to move quickly to adapt before it’s too late to undo the damage.  We need to take active steps to become inclusive, empathetic leaders who help our teams build relationships and ensure corporate culture remains alive and well.

Women Are Feeling the Burnout

Looking deeper into the survey data makes it clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s because the pandemic is affecting various demographics quite differently, with seniority level, job function, and gender groups presenting unique priorities and concerns around virtual work.

In particular, gender breakdowns reveal some particularly stark contrasts. We found that balancing personal and professional obligations is more challenging for women than for men.  We also see that women are more concerned about burnout in their organizations than men are.  

This data puts hard numbers against dynamics many of us experience daily: now more than ever, women are tenuously balancing working from home and preparing for the upcoming school year.  As many schools re-open with at least part-time online instruction, we expect to see these concerns increase across the fall as the lines between work and home blur beyond recognition. 

So what should leaders do now?

  1. Align to values. As an organization, ensure that you are clear on your values. Repeat these values to the organization, and use them while making decisions.
  1. Close the loop. Watercooler discussions are long gone, and it’s easy for employees to misinterpret communications without the opportunity to spot and correct issues at the moment.  Take the time to ensure everyone is on the same page.  This may mean content repetition and lots of short interactions to align. Zoom or call employees, don’t just rely on e-communications, which are often misinterpreted. 
  1. Overinvest in messaging to cement things that matter. Repeat important concepts three times to ensure your organization understands and has had ample opportunity for clarification. 
  1. Encourage blocking schedules for personal needs. Working hours may vary right now and you must remember that every employee is different and has responsibilities outside of work. Block off time when we are available for virtual meetings, and also block off time that is dedicated to YOU. ExecOnline’s new program, Strengthening Workplace Wellness with Duke Corporate Education, emphasizes the concept of 30/7/u — 30 minutes a day just for YOU.
  2. Invest in formal opportunities for learning that integrate into the flow of work. Leadership and management are being stretched like never before, and this is an opportunity for considerable growth. However, growth won’t come without reflection and deliberate practice. Invest in applied learning experiences such as those provided by ExecOnline.
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