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Coping during the Pandemic: What a Difference a Generation Makes!
Audra I. Mockaitis (School of Business, Maynooth University)
Christina L. Butler (Kingston University Business School)
We present results from the first of a multi-part study that aims to gauge the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to people’s work-related and general wellbeing, and whether individuals with certain characteristics are better able to cope with these disruptions. We examine whether different generations are experiencing and dealing with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic differently.
In this note, we first discuss the changing nature of work before turning to highlight the generational challenges inherent in global leadership roles. We then present an overview of our research together with initial findings. We close with our thoughts on what these findings mean for organizations as they move forward into the “new normal”.
COVID has accelerated recent organizational changes
Over recent years, as organizations have tried to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, they have been implementing flatter structures, more flexibility, and more participatory styles. Thus, pre-COVID, organizations were already emerging that are more fluid, and even boundaryless or borderless and are team- or networked-based  . Telework and virtual participation were emerging too in tandem with these structural changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust these shifts to the fore overnight for many other organizations around the globe. Owing to the pandemic, electronic forms of interaction at work have taken over as the only form for many and we expect them to remain the norm for the duration of the pandemic with long-lasting consequences for the future of work. For example, the UK Office for National Statistics is reporting that 44% of the labor force is working remotely during the pandemic, whereas in the same period in 2019 only 12% were doing so.
These changes to organizations and to the organization of work appear to bring many benefits to organizations. They can respond to crises or issues arising with little notice (such as the pandemic) and involving multiple locations, saving them time and costs, enhancing organizational innovation, creativity, diversity and social capital, and enabling them to quickly spread knowledge and access to key stakeholders across the globe, to name a few benefits .
However, flexibility is a double-edged sword. It is employees who implement and experience new ways of working. Individuals need to interact with and deal with multiple members across many different types of boundaries, focusing on their internal tasks, but also on maintaining and managing relationships with stakeholders around the globe. Increasing flexibility, although seen as beneficial to organizations, has potentially disruptive consequences for employees (e.g., longer working hours and an increase in crosscutting roles including across the home-work divide). Indeed, pre-COVID, the World Health Organization had declared stress as a 21st century health epidemic resulting in many chronic physical and mental diseases. It is important, though, to take a more nuanced approach to understanding the consequences that may vary by type of employee including the generation of which they are a part.
Pre-COVID, the generational makeup of the global workforce highlighted challenges for Millennials in management roles
As the Millennial generation – the largest generation in modern history to enter the workforce – is now moving into and up the ranks of middle management, it is key to understanding employees’ experiences of work under COVID  . According to Hershatter and Epstein , Millennials crave stability, structure and clarity in the workplace, factors that are generated by centralized decision-making, well-defined responsibilities, and significant management oversight and that are found in traditional hierarchical organizations. Millennials also demand work–life balance – including flexible working hours and instant gratification – unlike work-centric Baby Boomers. These requirements have led to difficulties in retaining Millennials   . Apart from the possibility of increased flexibility offered by the sudden move to significantly more remote working under COVID, other Millennial work requirements may be harder to meet.
Given what we know about Millennials in the workplace, would Millennials find it more difficult to cope with isolation and work during the pandemic?
What our research shows
We received 422 responses to an online survey sent during the months of April and May, on work-related issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. After omitting invalid responses, our final sample was N=325, representing 41 countries, with 65.4% from Anglo countries and 34.6% from non-Anglo countries. 61% of respondents were female and 39% male, 76% were employed full-time, and all but 12% had a formal university qualification. In terms of age, the mean age of our sample was 45.9 years (min=20, max =74). We divided the sample into three groups to represent three distinct generations as follows: the Millennial generation (N=107) included people aged 24 to 40, Generation X (N=133) included ages from 41 to 55, and the Boomer generation (N=85) – from 56 to 74.
In the first part of this study, we included questions about one’s working life in general, as well as reactions to events over the previous week in terms of general wellbeing and stress. Support from Colleagues (α=.71) and Supervisor (α=.86), pertained to how often help and support, listening to problems and encouragement are offered by colleagues and supervisor. Oldenberg’s inventory  measured Burnout (α=.88). These constructs measured respondents’ situations pre-COVID.
The remaining constructs measured the extent of disruption caused during the pandemic. Three items gauged the extent to which respondents rated disruptions by COVID to their work, family and personal routines (α=.67). Vitality (α=.78) measured energy levels during the past week. General stress (α=.77) measured the extent of nervousness and negative mood, Cognitive stress (α=.77) measured difficulties in focus and concentration, and Wellbeing (α=.84) measured general feelings of good health, satisfaction and sense of purpose.
Table 1 presents the results of an ANOVA of differences in responses between generations prior to and during the pandemic. The greatest differences in coping during the COVID-19 pandemic are between the Millennial and Boomer generations. Specifically, Boomers report higher levels of vitality and wellbeing and lower levels of general and cognitive stress during the pandemic, as well as overall lower levels of burnout under usual circumstances. This is despite also reporting lower usual levels of supervisor support. Millennials report more or less the opposite. During the pandemic, Millennials experience significantly lower levels of vitality than other generations and significantly lower levels of wellbeing than Boomers. Despite usually perceiving significantly higher levels of supervisor support at work than Generation X, Millennials still experience high levels of burnout (significantly higher than Boomers). During the pandemic, Millennials report greater overall stress and cognitive stress (significantly higher than the other generation groups).
Why are there such stark differences among the generations? Why are the Millennials struggling more under COVID?
Butler, Zander, Mockaitis, and Sutton  suggest that global leaders who are successful in their roles have developed the necessary focus, drive and people-orientation  to confront changing organizational structures and the changing nature of work itself by practicing three interrelated roles: boundary spanner, blender and bridge maker. At the same time, these authors argue that Millennials from around the world may struggle comparatively more than other generations as they move toward or take up management positions. Our findings seem to reflect this analysis.
Organizational boundary spanners create and maintain strong linkages with the external environment to enable information and resources to flow across boundaries and to exert influence on stakeholders in achieving organizational objectives . A desire for “quick” information and a focus on self may lead Millennials to struggle to present business needs in a sufficiently robust manner  to engage business audiences across a boundary-spanning environment  compared with other generations, especially when their own line managers are fully immersed in the current crisis and so less available to support direct reports.
Butler et al.  suggest that a blender role is important to achieve cultural fusion  among team members resulting in the group and the individual being equally, but differently, valued . Despite being digital natives , narcissistic tendencies may interfere with a fully blended team experience for Millennials, especially when all work is conducted virtually, as can be the case during the pandemic, and when line managers are less available. This can lead to a negative impact on stress levels and well-being.
Lastly, successful bridge makers engage readily with the ‘cultural other’ while ensuring successful interaction among people across different national cultural boundaries . DiStefano and Maznevski  emphasize the importance of being able to decenter, a challenge for Millennials who are comparatively self-focused. A highly virtual work environment exacerbates the lack of interest in others and increases a focus on self , interfering with the ability to see others’ perspectives.
It is thus paradoxical that Millennials, who are characterized by being technologically savvy, are having the hardest time coping with the pandemic. All of our respondents reported similar degrees of disruption to their lives as a result of COVID. Members of other generations appear to be getting on with their lives better than Millennials, despite having relatively more responsibility (e.g., balancing work and family or supervisory roles). They report higher levels of wellbeing and less stress. However, our research suggests that in comparison to other generations, Millennials may need more attention from supervisors (in the form of support and encouragement), who are less available now. Organizations need to respond to this leadership paradox now to move successfully from COVID to the “new normal”.
You can read a more detailed report from this study here.
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Making a difference through global leadership
I am pleased to be a part of a recently published book, the Research Handbook of Global Leadership: Making a Difference (Lena Zander, Ed.). The book’s publication is timely, as leadership in these uncertain times becomes ever more important. Many international organizations are and will be facing numerous challenges and will need to develop new strategies, skills and ways to overcome them. More than ever before true leadership will need to include skills to navigate an uncertain landscape, while simultaneously demonstrating compassion, inclusivity, social consciousness, and responsibility across an even greater number of boundaries and contexts.
I have contributed to three chapters in this book. In Chapter 4, Action intent: Getting closer to leadership behavior in 22 countries, 23 authors examine how leaders make the choices they do in a study of 1,868 leaders worldwide. In Chapter 9, The new Millennial global leaders: What a difference a generation makes!, Butler, Sutton, Mockaitis and Zander examine inter-generational workplace relations, the characteristics of millennial generation employees and the future of work and global leadership facing this generation. In Chapter 24, A world of learning: The future of management education based on academia and practitioner universitas, Zettinig, Zander, Zander and Mockaitis discuss the future of management education, especially the way current and future leaders are “trained” to acquire standardized skill sets and offer some ideas for enhancing the relevance of leadership learning.
All of the book’s 25 chapters, by renowned scholars in the field, add to the global leadership domain by offering novel insights into “making a difference.”
TAP YOUR VIRTUAL TEAM’S POTENTIAL.
More and more organizations are tapping into the benefits of virtual teams to achieve cost efficiencies, greater flexibility and faster turnaround times for complex projects. Managing an international virtual team has numerous challenges associated with physical, temporal and cultural distance, yet, in many industries, global virtual teams are fast becoming organizations’ raison d’etre, a new form of organizing work that helps both large and small firms quickly respond to global client demands and outperform their more traditionally focused competitors. Rapid, flexible and innovative solutions are a real possibility with global virtual teams. When managed the right way, global virtual teams can outperform traditional project teams. They can be used to bring people together across an organization’s global locations, who would not normally be able to meet. They can tap into and combine resources – ideas, expertise, information, people and technologies – across functions, departments and layers in different countries that would otherwise be very expensive to do. And, by doing so, they can achieve greater creativity, innovativeness and performance. How can a global virtual team achieve its maximum potential to unleash creative and innovative performance-enhancing solutions? Based on our own research on hundreds of global virtual teams over the years, there are three key factors that interact and have the potential either to provoke underperformance or to generate exceptional performance.
Diversity of backgrounds, nationalities, attitudes, expectations, values and other characteristics can make or break the team from the start. A different understanding by team members of just about anything that occurs in the team can quickly escalate into an irreparable misunderstanding. Delays in communication may also cause minor issues to linger and potentially lead to conflict. However, diversity also has the ability to amplify the team’s creative potential. Different ideas, backgrounds, experiences and skills across different countries can have a positive multiplier effect. But leveraging diversity is not that easy. It is important that team members, and leaders especially, have some degree of sensitivity to diversity and cultural differences. In other words, they must possess cultural intelligence.
Trust is important in any team, but it is extremely so in global virtual teams. When so much communication takes place remotely, asynchronously, and when members cannot always see one another, the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say” takes on a new meaning. Just like the paradox of diversity, trust in global virtual teams can be built almost instantly, or it can become almost impossible to attain. And it is as much affected by diversity and the team’s ability to meld differences, as by the type of leadership in the team.
We have often seen leaders of global virtual teams throw their arms up in frustration and complain that no matter what approach they take, they just cannot bring the team members together, meet their individual expectations and worry about key project goals at the same time. Different preferences for communicating, coordinating activities, supervising the work, setting goals, interacting and approaching the task by team members were just some of the challenges team leaders needed to juggle. Adapting one’s style to suit all team members seems impossible for one team leader, especially when deadlines await. And trying different approaches takes time. Global virtual team leaders should not hesitate to release the reins when needed and allow another member, who has the expertise or can meet members’ culture-driven expectations, to step in. Sometimes, sharing leadership with the team is the best solution in global virtual teams; empowering team members to own the team process and be proactive can lead to more team innovation than when a leader tries to be all things to all members. There is no formula for global virtual team success. However, leveraging diversity, developing trust and sharing leadership when necessary in global virtual teams are three potential challenges that, when overcome, could transform the global team from one in which people feel thrown together to complete the project, to one in which members combine their unique and diverse resources to generate innovative solutions that set the firm apart from the competition.