Number of the Day: barriers to virtual work

65%: Percentage of business leaders who said relationship-building is the biggest obstacle to the virtual work environment

Now more than a year into the remote-work experiment prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are still figuring out the most effective way to operate a distributed workplace. While some may have been concerned about employee productivity at the start, that worry largely didn’t pan out–but instead has been replaced by other obstacles.

That’s according to a new survey of thousands of business leaders who participated in leadership development programs offered by enterprise platform ExecOnline. The participants were asked about barriers to effective virtual work, and the top challenge (65%) was building and managing relationships–including with teams, cross-functionally throughout the organization and with clients. At this time last year, 56% of respondents cited relationships as the top barrier to a successful virtual environment.

Other common obstacles include:

  • culture (44%, compared to 39% last year)
  • communication (33% vs. 30%)
  • managing team wellbeing (24% vs. 22%)
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Conversely, 28% of respondents cited at-home productivity as a barrier, compared to 45% last year, while 16% said technology is a challenge, down from 23% in 2020.

What it means to HR leaders

The new virtual workplace is challenging the major pillars of workplace culture–relationships, beliefs and values, and communication methods, says Hoyun Kim, chief legal and people officer at ExecOnline. Organizations must “continue to focus on employee productivity, performance, engagement and wellbeing” to counteract those challenges.

That imperative is especially important as remote and hybrid models likely will outlast the pandemic. A December study by SmartWay2 found that 92% of employees surveyed would prefer some sort of hybrid work arrangement. Given that, Kim says, HR leaders need to invest in initiatives that motivate and support their teams, including networking and team-building opportunities, as well as leadership and professional development.

“These skills will ultimately help company leaders better manage challenges that come from virtual burnout and managing relationships,” Kim says, “and further position them to lead with agility when it’s most needed.”

To learn more about virtual work, register for HRE‘s free, virtual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference set for May 11-13.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].