Much has been written on the need for connections in a hybrid working model. Research has found that if we are satisfied with our connections, we are up to three times more productive in a remote environment. More specifically our bonding connections, represented by within team interactions, drive greater productivity. However, 70% of hybrid employees feel more disconnected from their co-workers. As the pandemic lingered, we noticed a decrease in both bonding connections and bridging connections, those interactions that span across the organization from team to team, dropped off both rapidly and significantly.
Neighborhood Effect and the Pandemic
The reality is that a neighborhood effect has emerged since the beginning of the pandemic, as a result of network erosion, resulting in many organizations moving beyond silos and looking more like a constellation of local teams. This effect is even more pronounced with leaders. Pre-pandemic leaders represented nearly 50% of an organization’s bridging connections. However, since working remotely, senior managers and executives lost nearly three times the number of bridge connections as that of an average employee (3.5 times for executives and 2.7 times for senior managers). Nevertheless, few people are talking about how to help our leaders with their connections.
On the left side of Figure 1 is a healthy organizational network early in the pandemic of 500, plus individuals across nine different groups (various color-coded nodes) and 48 leaders (both senior managers and executives represented by the grey nodes). The network is tightly clustered within groups to drive cohesive driven tasks such as productivity and has many bridge connections to facilitate idea sharing and alignment activities.
Fast forward six months on the right side however, and you see the same network with 21% fewer connections. It now looks more like a set of local neighborhoods than a cohesive, broad-based network. If you look a little closer, you will also notice something else. Leaders have lost a significant number of their bridging connections. In fact, for the most part, they have moved from the edge of their teams, operating as brokers between teams, to the center of their groups, flattening out the organizations.
Good News, Bad News
The good news is that leaders are now more accessible to their teams because it now takes less time to connect directly with any one of them. Indeed, leaders appear to have stepped into the gap and taken on the challenges of their employees. They have leaned in hard on issues such as team performance, burnout, retention, hiring, and local communications and have led with great empathy, actively engaging their teams to ensure greater employee well-being. The bad news, however, is that this has come with a significant cost. Their jobs have become 10 times harder.
The impact of this phenomenon has resulted in a significant decline in bridging interactions across the organization. These outward looking ties, which connect teams to external ideas, insights, and resources, are necessary to facilitate learning and innovation, which allow an organization to move beyond the status quo. The potential long-term impact is therefore the crippling of future adaptations, innovations, and strategic alignment.
The Isolation of Our Leaders
However, far more critical immediately, is the impact on leaders themselves. At the very time that they are carrying the burden of many others, they have become more separated and isolated from their own support network: The bridging connections with their peers.
Being a leader is lonely work under normal conditions, but never more than when one is isolated and being pulled into an array of emerging issues. As a consequence, leaders are becoming more chronically stressed, burned out, and exhausted and this should come as no surprise because we know, based on years of academic research, that social connections are the primary factor in overall wellbeing.
Help them reduce collaborative overload. Coach leaders to step back and evaluate what they are currently working on. Have them look back four months in their calendars to discover recurring activities or meetings that they can shift to less-connected people as a developmental opportunity. Challenge them to continually push themselves to look for opportunities to let go of routine activities and meetings.
Challenge them to activate dormant bridge connections. Engage them in a conversation to ensure that they have a diverse network across the organization. Ask them to reflect on their critical connections before the pandemic. Push them to reactivate these connections and avoid the natural tendency to settle into their existing networks.
Coach them to invest in broad based connections critical to future success. Challenge them to think laterally about ways to join efforts with peers. Proactively engage a select group of peers to explore mutual overlap in interests and ways that sharing resources could yield desired results. Instruct them also to seek out emergent opportunities with these peers and stakeholders to discuss new opportunities to enterprise challenges.
Have them build mechanisms to ensure enterprise connectivity. Have them consider such actions as: Appointing a liaison role by designating one person on the team as a contact for the exchange of best practices. Create a team alumni network and as appropriate, pair alumni and members to boost engagement and strengthen team connections to other units, and schedule cross-team sharing sessions.
Schedule a face-to-face leadership re-connection session. Consider designing and facilitating a leadership conference, or build a new leadership cohort to focus on emerging business issues. In short, get leaders in a physical room together to reengage.