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Top Leadership Challenges of 2021

April 21, 2021

By Heather Nezich, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

2020 was a challenging year, and the pandemic continues to create new challenges in 2021. A new leadership survey from ExecOnline polled thousands of leaders across the U.S. to find out what their biggest challenges are.

The survey revealed that nearly half (49%) of respondents said that managing workloads with fewer team members is a top challenge, which is up significantly from 30% of respondents from last spring.

In addition, they found that 48% of leaders named keeping their employees motivated without monetary or promotion incentives as a top challenge, unchanged from last spring’s survey.

But there were also some signs that leaders have found better ways to manage their now virtual teams:

  • 45% said supporting their team members’ overall wellbeing was a challenge, but that is down from 61% who said so last spring.
  • 44% said balancing their own personal and professional obligations was a top challenge, down from 48% last year.

“In the past year, leaders around the world have grappled with brand new and unexpected challenges related to maintaining an effective workplace, but now is the time to move from recovery mode to finding sustainable solutions for what the future of work will look like,” said ExecOnline Co-Founder and CEO Stephen Bailey. “As the modern workplace evolves, corporate leaders need to support the growth and development of future ready leaders, promote equitable opportunities for career advancement, and prioritize removing any barriers that are inhibiting teams’ ability to succeed.”

“While there are certainly positive signs that the ‘workplace’ is adapting to the volatile changes witnessed in 2020, leaders should not lose sight of the need for aggressive leadership and professional development opportunities, especially with the significant changes in the makeup and size of their workforce,” continued Bailey.

Leadership Burnout

As the work-from-home situation lingers, there is increasing concern about burnout among leaders. When asked about the extent to which they are concerned about burnout within their organization, more than three-quarters (78%) said they are moderately to extremely concerned—similar to the 77 % who said so in a previous survey last summer.

And, in a sign that women may have started getting the help they need at home or have found other solutions, fewer women in positions of leadership in this survey say that balancing their personal and professional obligations is one of their biggest challenges. While still nearly half (46%) are actively working to balance their home and work lives, it is down from the survey high of 53% who said so during the summer of 2020.

Interestingly, slightly more men say that balancing their personal and professional obligations is one of their biggest challenges; after dropping to 40% during the fall of 2020. 43% of men say finding that balance is their biggest challenge.

Barriers to Effective Remote Work – The Good and the Bad

When asked what barriers are preventing effective remote work, nearly two-thirds (65%) said “relationships” as it’s been difficult to build and maintain them within teams, cross-functionally, and with clients—this is up from the 56% who said “relationships” last spring. 44% said “culture,” up from 39% last year, and 33% said communication, also up from 30% last year. Managing teams’ wellbeing was listed as a barrier for 24% of respondents, similar to the 22% who said so last year.

Though it’s not all bad news: just 28% said at home productivity is currently a barrier to the virtual work environment, down significantly from 45% last year, and 16% said technology is a barrier, down from 23% last year.

Benefits of Remote Work

When asked about the benefits of remote work, nearly eight in 10 (79%) said that the time savings/lack of commute is a benefit, and 55% said that the flexibility to work at different times is a benefit; another 51% said that location flexibility is a benefit, and 44% said greater time with their family is a benefit.

Employers overcame many barriers and challenges in 2020 and are now facing new challenges in 2021 as we continue to work through the pandemic.  Employee development, motivation, wellbeing, and remote work – which is likely to here to stay in some shape or form – should continue to be a priority for employers throughout 2021.

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