Leadership   //   December 1, 2022  ■  4 min read

Bosses feel connected to their employees, but the feeling isn’t mutual

The transition to remote and hybrid work has resulted in a “great disconnect” where more than half of workers feel less of an interpersonal relationship with their managers than before the pandemic.

A survey of 500 U.S. workers by the online learning platform NovoEd found that while the majority of senior managers believe they have solid relationships with those who report to them, fewer than half of lower-ranking team members and just half of middle managers said they, in turn, feel a connection to senior management.

Compounding the problem is that two-thirds of business leaders and team members surveyed said they work in an organization that requires them to collaborate with coworkers differently today than they did before the pandemic struck. 

The most significant among these changes is the evolving nature of leadership itself, said Christina Yu, learning technology executive and CMO at NovoEd, which works with corporations like General Electric and Nestlé. 

“Today’s leaders have the ability to lead across functions, across industries, across domains and from different angles — from below, from the side, from everywhere in the org chart, maybe even beyond the boundaries of the firm itself, as a gig worker, or a partner or even a customer co-creating something on a platform with other customers,” Yu explained. “This kind of leadership — borne from a networked world, where ecosystem business models are flourishing — requires incredible levels of empathy, systems intelligence and the ability to influence across lines without authority.”

Even as companies continue to press for a return to the office and more normalized work routines, management can create an environment where employees feel more connected to their higher-ups by recognizing the opportunity that is still afforded by remote and hybrid work arrangements, Yu argued.

As Susan Tohyama, chief human resources officer at the HR platform Ceridian, noted, “Employees are looking for more choice, flexibility and empowerment in their careers and work life. And in order to foster a connected workforce, employers have to take frequent pulse checks in order to listen, respond and take action.”

Joe Du Bey, cofounder and CEO of Eden, a hybrid office software platform, observed that workplace disconnection is being driven by a diluted sense of community for remote-first employees, who had much deeper connections with colleagues in a primarily in-person world — going on to point out that that sense of disconnection is the result of human biology. “We are hardwired as people to crave social interaction and community,” as he put it. “In fact, we spent our first 300,000 years as a species in close quarters with others, and just the last two years working distantly.”

When considering the state of workplace relationships, a distinction should be made between actual and perceived disconnection, according to one HR expert.

Eric Mochnacz, senior consultant at the HR platform Red Clover, pointed out that feelings of disconnection can happen because employees are no longer in a shared space, collaborating face to face. “There is something about observing teams in conference rooms working together to solve a problem — or even just stopping by a cubicle to chat through a work issue — that is no longer happening. So, reason stands that individuals who are no longer seeing this don’t think their team members, direct reports or colleagues are connected to each other,” he explained. 

As Mochnacz sees it, we are actually more connected than ever because of the vast array of technological tools at our fingertips. “Are employees really disconnected or is there just the perception they are disconnected because we don’t see each other every day?” he said.

Feelings of disconnection are on the rise at the same time more of us are feeling depleted because of our jobs. A global survey of 8,833 workers by Ceridian found that 9 in 10 suffer from burnout, up 6% versus last year’s survey. The pain is being felt at all levels, with 92% of senior leadership feeling burnt out, 40% of them experiencing serious or extreme symptoms. 

Companies are experiencing greater risk of a talent flight as a great majority (90%) of workers feel stuck in their jobs, according to the survey. Ceridian found that 70% of those employees are at risk of seeking greener pastures, up 9% from last year.

Even with the RTO movement in full swing, a large majority of employees continue to demand flexibility in their work setups. The study revealed that 8 in 10 workers say flex work makes them more committed to their employer.

“Employees crave flexibility in how they work, when they work, and where they work, and that’s becoming more important post-pandemic,” said Tohyama. “They want to be personally engaged with their careers, but they also want an employer who understands balance and provides space for their lives outside of work.”