Is Anyone Getting Along with Their Boss?

Two-thirds of workers say things with their boss have gotten worse during the pandemic. Why leaders need to repair the rapport, and fast.

Everyone likes to complain about their boss. Turns out, the volume of those complaints apparently rise during a pandemic.

In a new survey that could serve as a wake-up call to many corporate leaders, two-thirds of employees say the pandemic has negatively impacted their relationship with their boss. The survey of 2,000 US workers, by the HR software firm Motivosity, also revealed that more than half, 52%, say they are searching or plan to start looking for a new role because of their manager.

To be sure, relations between employees and managers have always been delicate. But the latest deterioration comes at a potentially critical time for a lot of firms. With vaccine programs expanding rapidly, and more businesses returning to more normal operations, many firms are planning to do some rapid hiring. So repairing the rapport, experts say, takes on a new urgency to stop the best talent from fleeing. “For those who saw cracks in how leadership has handled employee engagement during the pandemic, it will now begin to affect them as the hiring market is roaring post-pandemic,” says Deepali Vyas, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global cohead of fintech in the firm’s Global Financial Markets practice.

The most obvious factor behind all of this, of course, has been the move to remote work, which removed in-person contact between workers and managers. “The move to remote work was done quickly, and I think managers in a lot of organizations were left to sort out some of the new realities on their own,” says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. Making things worse: as companies struggled to survive, they cut a lot of resources for training managers, says Andrew De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas. And while leadership development budgets likely will increase as the pandemic subsides, he says, many organizations still have lost a year to help create stronger managers.

Experts say it is possible to repair some of the strained relations. Some managers, for example, are using software tools to help their employees be creative and innovative. They are also routinely checking in on each of their direct reports, asking how they are feeling, and charting out paths for them to grow. Most important is building trust, which experts say requires leaders to be open about what needs to be accomplished, what challenges await, and how each employee will help the team achieve the goals.

Vyas believes the next round of performance reviews could help improve employee-boss relations. She says, instead of just looking at past performance, leaders can focus on future employee development. “There are lot of these individuals sitting in seats who want internal mobility,” she says. “But unless they’re specifically asked about it, they remain hidden.”

Organizations should also start measuring whether their efforts are having any impact on employee-boss relationships as well. Start systematically tracking employee engagement and satisfaction rates, and keep an eye on employee retention, Vyas says. “Those types of analyses are important rather than profit margins right now,” she says.

Many firms are hoping to bring back more workers to the office in the coming months. But many others plan to experiment with so-called hybrid work models, where staffers come to the office part of the time. That, experts say, could make it harder for bosses to develop and maintain healthy work relationships with their direct reports if their workers’ schedules don’t coincide with their own. “Juggling that will be challenging, and managers will need training and guidance,” Royal says.