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Employee-Manager Relations Amid COVID-19

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 10/09/2020

employee talking with their manager on a video call

Table of Contents

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic forced many people out of their offices and into their homes, more than a third of Americans are working from home. For some companies and industries where working from home is possible, employees may never fully return to their office buildings – opting instead to allow their teams to work from anywhere.

While working from home and working remotely aren’t exactly the same experience, both present similar challenges. When teams are used to in-person meetings and being able to easily collaborate with co-workers sitting nearby, the transition to working from home can be exhausting. More than anything else, the way we communicate personally and professionally has evolved at a breakneck pace as a result of COVID-19 in recent months.

To understand how the changes propelled by the pandemic and work-from-home environments have impacted the relationships between employees and their managers, we surveyed over 1,000 professionals who have switched from in-office to virtual work since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic for their perspective. Read on as we explore whether relationships with our bosses have gotten better or worse since the pandemic, how often people are still “meeting” with their managers, and what the new work-life balance looks like for both employees and managers.

Building Better Work Relationships

From the employee perspective, communication and relationships with their managers have changed since the pandemic began. While some perceived less communication with their managers, it was more common for employees to perceive their relationships had actually improved over time.

Infographic showing employee-manager communications during covid

In our day-to-day working routines, it’s easy to get used to the way things are. We create routines around our meeting schedules, expected deadlines, and interactions that can be difficult to break out of. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have turned those routines on their head for millions of Americans, it’s still possible for teams to communicate effectively if they’re intentional about the way they approach connection opportunities.

For 41% of employees, communication with their managers had been the same during the pandemic as it was before the pandemic began. While 27% of employees indicated communicating with their managers more often during the pandemic, 33% had fewer connection opportunities. A majority of people believe their managers have had good communication skills during the pandemic (67%) and that they’ve been receiving honest communication (66%).

For nearly half of employees (48%), interpersonal relationships with their managers have also stayed the same, though 32% indicated they have better relationships with their bosses now than they did before the pandemic began. 1 in 5 employees reported that the pandemic has caused the relationship with their manager to worsen.

Finding Time to Sync

With one-on-one meetings happening frequently and virtually, employees felt the best time and day to connect with their managers was Monday mornings.

infographic showing employee-manager meeting information during the pandemic

For teams transitioning from largely in-person working environments to working from home, video calls may have seemed like the natural transition. Too many Zoom chats later and video call fatigue have forced many teams to reconsider how many virtual meetings during the day might be too many.

Before the pandemic began, employees reported that they were meeting with their managers 10 days each month, on average. In the months since the pandemic began and with a transition to working for home for many, employees report monthly meetings with managers have decreased to six, on average, though employees say seven meetings a month would be ideal. More than half of people reported having formal meetings with their managers four times or more per month since the beginning of the health crisis.

For 34% of people, Mondays were the best day of the week for scheduling virtual meetings with their managers, and Thursdays (9%) and Fridays (14%) were deemed the worst. A majority of employees preferred to have their manager syncs in the early morning hours (44%), though late mornings (26%) were still more popular than early or late afternoons. On average, 10 a.m. was the ideal time of day for meeting with a manager among people working from home. Research on productivity trends have found that people get significantly more done in the mornings than they do in the afternoon, with peak productivity at 11 a.m.

Employee Performance Reviews

Most employees felt they’re getting the information they needed from their managers, and most had observed positive emotional changes in their manager’s behavior.

Infographic showing manager virtual habits during covid

Managers trying to stay in touch with their teams now have more to think about than productivity or deadlines. Team members may be looking to them for guidance on what’s happening as they work at home, when they’ll be required to return to the office, and generally how the company is performing as the pandemic continues to threaten the global economy.

Sixty percent of employees believed they’d received the proper amount of information about what’s happening with their organizations since the pandemic began, while 38% believed their managers have been checking in excessively in recent months. Sixteen percent of employees felt their managers are micromanaging less.

The most common habits employees observed in their managers included offering encouragement (48%), making themselves consistently available (33%), offering emotional support (32%), and creating regular and structured check-ins (32%). Just 17% of employees indicated their managers had provided little to no feedback since the pandemic began.

Priority Connections

Even though video chatting can be draining for employees, managers continue to rely on videoconferencing as the primary method of communication with their teams.

Infographic showing methods of communication during covid

Working virtually isn’t the only struggle managers or employees have faced as a result of COVID-19, and understanding how to navigate “business as usual” during a global health pandemic for managers can be complicated at best. As much as team members are struggling with the transition in their professional life, they may be struggling even more with the world around them in their personal life. Now, perhaps more than ever before, effective leadership means more than driving results.

More than half of managers (58%) had set up weekly calls since the pandemic began, with many expanding communication syncs to include structured one-on-one meetings with video chat (35%), instant messaging (35%), and video calls for emergency situations (33%). Videoconferencing was identified as the primary communication method (51%), followed by phone calls (13%), and emails (10%).

Nearly a third of managers were meeting with their employees one-on-one between two to three times each month as a result of the pandemic, and around 23% of managers were meeting one-on-one with their employees six or more times a month. This latter cohort also reported the highest level of motivation among their employees.

Losing Touch With the Team

While employees themselves may not feel this way, 54% of managers believed their interpersonal relationships with team managers have weakened since the pandemic began, and just 32% believed those relationships have stayed the same. A minority, 14% of managers believed their relationships with team members had strengthened since the onset of COVID-19.

Infographic showing how managers are connecting with employees during covid

For 40% of managers, employee connectedness was identified as a top priority, and 43% acknowledged this connectedness as neither low nor top priority. Still, 83% of managers also said they have more trust in the employees they communicate with more frequently. Managers who made their employee connectedness a top priority were also more likely to report their teams were productive (80%), engaged (62%), and had high morale (59%).

Finding the Right Leadership Style

Many managers have found that their team members need emotional support as much as they need professional support in recent months.

Infographic showing manager leadership styles during covid

More than 4 in 5 managers have helped cultivate emotional connections at work between team members during the pandemic, though they may be using different leadership styles to get there. Participative leadership was the most common (48%), followed by delegative (26%) and transformational (12%). Specifically, since COVID-19 began, authoritarian leadership (8%) and transactional leadership (6%) have been the least commonly used styles of management.

Building emotional connections at work has happened for many managers through offering encouragement (44%), emotional support (43%), radiating positivity (39%), and acknowledging team members publicly (36%).

The Bottom Line

Like many things, the workplace as we know it may slowly start to return to a new normal eventually. In the meantime, millions of Americans are currently navigating the complexities of working from home and that includes the relationships that exist between managers and their employees. While employees often felt positively about their communication with managers, and many managers admitted employee connectedness was their top priority. For those making communication a key focus, employees were more likely to report higher levels of morale and productivity.

The changes caused by COVID-19 in the workplace can put managers and leaders in completely unique situations. At Paychex, our goal is to help you navigate these unprecedented times with ease so you can focus on what matters most. Whether it’s assisting your employees with new challenges, solidifying your finances, or understanding your state’s reopening guides, Paychex is here to keep you informed in an ever-changing professional landscape. Explore the solutions that are right for your business today by visiting our Coronavirus Help Center.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we surveyed 1,005 professionals via Amazon Mechanical Turk. To qualify for the survey, respondents had to indicate that they’d switched from working in-office to working from home since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 1,005 professionals polled, 700 were employees, and 305 identified as managers. An attention-check question was used to identify and disqualify respondents who failed to read questions and answers in their entirety. The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-report which is faced with several issues such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping. This survey ran during June 2020.

Fair Use Statement

Are your readers trying to navigate working from home for the first time? We encourage the use of these findings and graphics for any noncommercial use with the inclusion of a link back to this page so they have access to the full report of our findings.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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