Execs feel leadership strain in the new normal of work

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As business leaders struggle to adapt to new employee expectations and adjust their management strategies for the new normal, executives’ overall satisfaction with work is down 15% over the last year, while remaining relatively flat – or even rising slightly – for non-executives, according to the latest global Pulse study from Future Forum.

The new edition of the Future Forum Pulse surveyed 10,766 workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK between 3 and 21 August 2022. Respondents were all desk workers, defined as employed full-time (30 or more hours a week) and either having one of the roles listed below or saying they work with data, analyse information or think creatively. Roles included executive management (such as president/partner, CEO, CFO, C-suite), senior management (such as executive VP, senior VP), middle management, junior management, senior staff and skilled office worker.

The Future Forum Pulse measured how desk workers feel about their working lives and found that as executives have faced challenges leading teams in a changing world, employees with flexibility at work have reported positive changes within their companies. Remote and hybrid workers were 52% more likely to say their company culture has improved over the last two years compared with fully in-person workers – and they cited flexible work policies as the primary reason that their culture is changing for the better.

In the face of the challenges of an almost overnight pivot to remote working, executives themselves are struggling. They reported record low experience scores, including 40% more work-related stress and anxiety and 20% worse work-life balance, year-on-year. Leaders in the middle of the management structure are also straining under these demands. Of all workers surveyed, middle managers reported the lowest scores for work-life balance, along with the highest levels of stress and anxiety.

Executives cited declining productivity as their second most serious concern when it comes to flexible work. But the data disproves this opinion: in reality, flexible work is associated with higher productivity and focus, not less. Workers with location flexibility reported 4% higher productivity scores than fully in-office workers, a difference that across a workforce can add up to material improvements to the bottom line.

The benefits of schedule flexibility were revealed to be even greater. Future Forum data showed that workers who have full schedule flexibility demonstrate 29% higher productivity than workers with no ability to shift their schedule.

Remote and hybrid workers cited flexible work policies as the top reason why their company culture has improved over the last two years. Remote and hybrid workers were also more likely to feel connected to their manager and their company’s values than in-office workers, and just as likely to say they feel connected to their immediate teams.

These findings suggest that a hard return to pre-pandemic ways of working will be counterproductive when it comes to strengthening culture and boosting productivity, said the report. Instead, it advised business leaders to focus on more meaningful management changes to address serious underlying issues in the workplace, such as burnout and attrition.

“We are still in the middle of the biggest workplace paradigm shift we’re apt to see in our lifetimes, and leaders are feeling that pressure,” said Sheela Subramanian, vice-president and co-founder of Future Forum. “The macroeconomic conditions, the continuing Great Resignation, and the push-pull between executives and employees on issues of workplace flexibility are making it harder to lead with confidence. You can no longer rely on the old leadership playbooks.”


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