The pandemic has drastically altered how employees engage with the workplace. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021. While this was initially spurred by necessity, many companies continued to offer remote and hybrid work schedules even as the immediate threat of COVID-19 waned.

Proponents cite increased productivity, flexibility and the promise of a better work-life balance. Others counter that working from home has eroded culture, making it harder for employees to collaborate and for younger leaders to grow.

Whether or not the trend continues, three years of virtual operations have left their mark on the workforce. What does this mean for tomorrow’s leaders?

The Culture Problem

Traditionally, the in-person office environment allowed for a significant degree of spontaneity. Supervisors could loop their team members into impromptu conversations or enlist them to interface with clients. Besides depriving employees of chances to tackle new challenges, remote work conditions have made it tough to support growth in junior and mid-level professionals.

The soft skills we recognize as key for leaders — like empathy, active listening and consensus building — lend themselves to one-on-one interactions. Senior leaders often report difficulties motivating and mentoring their teams when connection is limited to video calls.

These issues also impact the overall work environment. With fewer opportunities for organic exchanges, leaders are struggling to foster camaraderie and teamwork. Company culture becomes tangible when values are seen in action — not just heard.

New research suggests that these concerns are broadly shared across the private sector. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between August and September of 2022, 72.5% of private-sector establishments had little to no telework. This is a notable rise from 60.1% between July and September of 2021.

The Right Fit

At Townsend Search Group, we consider leadership skills to be as important in an executive search as technical acumen. When assessing candidates, we first ensure they have the expertise and experience to succeed in the position. However, we then spend as much time — if not more — evaluating cultural fit, leadership philosophy and emotional intelligence.

We seek out individuals who can speak to examples of navigating conflict, addressing internal issues and motivating the people they supervise.

Junior and mid-level employees who have experienced three or more years of remote work will have greater difficult cultivating these talents.  As this generation moves up within the workplace hierarchy, this will create a leadership void, where many of those tapped for executive-level roles lack the necessary social and emotional skills.

A New Skill Set

On the other hand, leadership could look very different in 10 years. Pandemic-era leaders have learned to oversee decentralized groups effectively — a skill set that could enhance their ability to collaborate across locations, borders and time zones.

Remote and hybrid work environments have transformed workplace norms. Many remote teams structure their days around scheduled meetings rather than casual check-ins. As the nuances of leadership change, managers have had to improve their capacity to develop, coach and drive results remotely. If companies continue to embrace hybrid and remote work, these abilities could prove incredibly valuable.

The Profile of a Leader

It is impossible to know how the profile of a leader will evolve in the coming years. What is clear is that recognizing and nurturing social and emotional capacity will become more critical than ever.

As young professionals use a broader lens to evaluate their career trajectory — weighing whether a C-suite position will offer the right balance and lifestyle — leaders will also need to home in on those individuals whose ambitions align with the opportunities the company can provide.

The realities of leadership could be shifting. But there are still many early and mid-career professionals eager to ascend. While the next decade will require flexibility, a proactive approach to talent development can keep the pipeline healthy.

By identifying the next generation of high-potential people early on, understanding their goals and investing in their progress, managers can help younger workers bridge the soft skills gap.