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Data shows since pandemic team performance hinges on this leader skill

October 13, 2021 - 5 min read


Good leaders who lead successful teams have several skills, from influence to humility and everything in between.

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a heavy burden on leaders. They faced new challenges like leading all-remote teams, managing ever-changing shifts and schedules, and motivating teams through months of uncertainty.

Although the pandemic has somewhat eased since its climax in mid-2020, leaders across the country are still adapting to a “new normal”—hybrid work models and distributed employees. And, these changes are still taking place.

How do leaders maintain performance under continually shifting and challenging circumstances? How can leaders support their employees while still focusing on the bottom line?

Our data shows this one leadership skill is key.

What the data say

We drew data from thousands of BetterUp members, including new and experienced managers and their teams. From this data, we examined what manager skills are disproportionately important for team performance, more so now than before the pandemic. 

Several skills like focus and the ability to plan strategically under uncertainty are more predictive of team performance now than ever before. However, one skill emerged as an enormous differentiator, growing 5.5X in importance since March 2020: relationship-building

The ability to maintain meaningful professional and social relationships within your work teams has become paramount to success. 

The emotional intelligence required to lead through this time is critical to retain talented employees and contribute to your business’s bottom line. This includes interpersonal skills like active listening, flexibility, conflict resolution, and communication.

Why it matters

Relationship-building was significantly easier pre-pandemic when most if not all employees worked in the office. This is no longer the case. As of H2 2021, almost 60% of teams are hybrid or fully remote, while 83% have identified a hybrid work model as one they may pursue in the future.

For fully remote teams, building relationships needs to be more intentional. Although remote employees may feel more creative at home, they lose those breakroom chats or elevator catch-ups that used to foster working relationships.

Not only does relationship-building directly impact performance, as proven above, but it also maintains the camaraderie that contributes to productivity and positive energy at work. Connected employees are happier, more creative, and stay longer.

But how do you organically build relationships in your team when you’re all distributed? How do you cultivate team connections when most interactions are deliberate and digital (looking at you, Zoom)?

Schedule team meetings that have nothing to do with work. Host virtual happy hours, lunch breaks (with expensed meals), and one-on-one coffee chats. Remain available to your team as you would at work, with a “digital open-door policy.” While tools like Slack can’t replace the feeling of stopping by a colleague's desk, encouraging your team to stay online and available during the workday can keep them connected to you and each other.

For those leading hybrid teams, reexamine how you spend time in the office. Perhaps you reserve in-office days for collaborative meetings or long lunches, where your team can connect without an agenda. Save routine stand-up meetings for remote days, so your team has the space to reconnect when in person.

If you conduct routine one-on-ones with your team (whether digital or in-person), reserve the final ten minutes as personal catch-up time. Ask about your employees’ families, hobbies, and mental health, and work to understand how you support them outside work as well.

Studies show that employees who feel understood, heard, and trusted will perform better.

No longer does successful leadership come down to skill-building and people management. In the wake of the pandemic, leaders must adopt and hone interpersonal skills and learn ways to build and maintain strong relationships — in and out of the office.

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Published October 13, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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