That’s this year’s takeaway for a time unlike any other. January 2021 marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 virus. With it, entire companies had operated for almost a year in forced work-from-home. For tech leaders, the challenge is no longer maintaining business-as-usual. It’s about long-term remote wellness, helping teams grow and thrive without an office. In this year’s report, we hoped to take a snapshot of the world’s long-term remote experiment: its successes, its shortcomings, and its future beyond the vaccine.
We’ve interviewed over 600 remote managers since January 2020. We included data from 200 of these leaders, across 150+ tech companies and countless hours of Zoom, into this year’s report. Each of our interviews started with a cold LinkedIn connection request and an open-ended question, “What’s been the hardest part of working remotely?”
This question brought up a paradox. Remote companies were actually thriving; increased productivity allowed many teams to grow exponentially and see a future without an office. However, their managers and teams were struggling. A year of work-from-home strained human aspects like relationship building and team morale. A staggering number of respondents reported burnout and mental health issues. Simply put, this kind of remote work is not sustainable.
In our 2020 report, we hypothesized that emotional intelligence and empathy could bridge the gap for remote issues like relationship building and miscommunication. However, reports of team morale and rising burnout require an additional solution.
Our data showed that the best companies created a culture of wellness from the ground up. This was only possible with emotionally intelligent managers, fundamental psychological safety, and a culture that puts people first. Success in our new Future of Work meant success with mental health and empathy.
This is our report on the state of remote management for 2021. Please enjoy.
Made with love
by the team at Kona.
Over a third of startups opt for a remote-first model. Another 50% want a hybrid model once offices are safe again.
72% of companies increased hiring over the last year. Many saw their company size double or triple since the beginning of the pandemic.
Though the middle managers we interviewed were majority women (54%), only 26.6% of VPs were women. Women made up only 25% of Engineering leadership and 30% of Product leadership at the companies we interviewed.
The average team size was 7.23, nearly double that of 2020!
Over 37% of respondents had no manager experience prior to sudden work-from-home. They had learned the ropes while leading through a crisis.
Almost 70% of our interviewees experienced burnout or mental health issues as a result of the pandemic.
About 60% of interviewees reported getting more asynchronous during the pandemic.
The hardest part about remote work is relationship building and loneliness, followed by team morale and motivation.
Similar to last year’s report, we found our interviewees through thousands of LinkedIn connection requests. Every major company had worked remotely for almost a year by January 2021, allowing for a larger interview pool and even distribution in company sizes. There’s a slight skew to 101-500 person companies, they’re often fast growing startups with more managers and less red tape.
The pandemic shifted the way we work. Looking to a future without this global threat, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. Over a third of startups opted for a remote-first model, ditching the office lease and hiring globally, forever. Notable companies include Atlassian, Coinbase, and Dropbox. Almost 50% of companies opted for a hybrid model once offices are safe again. The reason? Many teams work well from home!
Though we mainly surveyed tech companies, we wanted to ensure we captured a wide variety of experiences. To understand how businesses were thriving and struggling, We tracked whether the company managed to hire and grow during this difficult time. With all-too-common layoffs, concerning economic decline, and a massive shift in consumer behaviors, we expected most companies to shrink their staff and growth. Instead, 72% of companies had increased hiring in the last year and many saw their company size double or even triple since the pandemic began.
We reached out to a wide spectrum of roles to collect an accurate snapshot of remote managers. We noticed a slight skew in our data towards technical and process-oriented functions. Our cold LinkedIn outreach collected the highest response rates from Human Resources (22.7%), Operations (22.2%), and Engineering (14.9%).
We define “Senior Manager” as a person managing individual contributors (ICs), a “Director” as managing both ICs and managers, and a VP as a person who manages people managers, exclusively. Though labels like “Head of Marketing” were ambiguous, we did our best to take company size and hierarchy into account. Our data skewed towards Directors and Senior Managers. VPs responded less to our outreach.
We were limited to English-speaking managers and areas friendly to our PST time zone. The majority of our respondents came from the United States (72.7%). This was followed by Canada (5.8%), Germany (2.91%), UK (2.91%), India (2.33%), Spain (1.74%), Portugal (1.74%), and Sweden (1.16%). We also had a handful of interviewees from Singapore, Russia, Turkey, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Greece.
Before the global shift to work from home, many remote work evangelists hoped distributed teams would lead to more diversity in tech. Removing location bias from a role opened a world for individuals who couldn’t afford the rising rent of urban centers, family caretakers with less commute flexibility, and minorities with less access to opportunities.
However, as an article from Workplaceless puts succinctly, “Remote without thoughtful intention and strategy only results in further DE&I issues.” We looked at gender among the managers we interviewed. From what we can tell, there’s still work to do to close the gender gap among tech leadership.
To capture an accurate gender distribution in 2021’s remote leaders, we avoided skewing our data with gender-specific LinkedIn outreach. Out of the 200 managers we interviewed, 52% were men and 46.6% were women. The final 0.6% represented gender non-conforming managers. These numbers feel promising for representation in company leadership, but we still have a long way to go to close the gap. A 2016 report by NCWIT shows that the turnover rate is twice as high for women as it is for men.
Looking at the gender distribution across levels of remote leadership, we noticed a few trends. Among mid-level Senior Managers, a slight majority were women (54%). However, men take a majority for Director positions with 57% men and 43% women. This divide becomes stark with VPs, where we saw 73% men and 26.6% women. However, among CXOs, it falls back to almost a 50/50 divide. Though this data set skewed towards those who responded to our requests for an interview, they do align with the overall gender imbalance in tech leadership. A 2021 report by Builtin shared that 39% of women in tech view gender bias as a primary reason for not being offered a promotion.
We were especially interested in the gender distribution among technical and non-technical roles. Historic stats are concerning. AllTogetherSWE reports that only 26% of software engineers are women. Unfortunately, we noticed a similar trend. Women made up only 25% of Engineering leadership at the companies we interviewed and 30% of Product leadership. Women had more representation among non-technical manager roles like Marketing (44% women), Operations (47% women), Support (38.4%) and Business Development (38.4%), but never saw a majority. In particular, non-technical departments like Sales (31.5%) saw a similar gender gap as more technical roles. The only department where women took a majority was Human Resources with 80% women-led roles.
We asked our remote managers about their team size to better understand the working environment of 2021. We defined teams by direct reports, employees that report to the manager and have regular touch points. Taking out outliers, the average team size was 7.23, nearly double that of 2020. The most common team size was 5 (11%). The largest team size mentioned was 50!
We also wanted to know what percentage of interviewees were leading a team for the first time during the pandemic. We asked a subset (35%) of our respondents whether they had managed a team before COVID-19. Over 37% of respondents had no managerial experience prior to sudden work-from-home. They had been promoted during the pandemic and gained their team lead experience through a crisis.
Given that a third of managers had less than a year of experience before COVID-19, we were curious about manager satisfaction with training and preparation. The overall response was positive. The same subset of 70 respondents reported 44% “agree” and 27% “strongly agree” that their companies had adequately prepared them to manage their teams. Companies seemed to have succeeded in preparing their leaders despite larger team sizes and pandemic pressures.
Team size varies as managers climb up the ladder. Middle managers were closest to the overall average of 7.23 with approximately 7.5 direct reports per manager. This jumps to an average of 9.36 teammates as a Director and 10.25 teammates as a VP. We think this is because Directors and VPs get more reports as departments grow and smaller teams split off from under them. These higher level managers appeared to have the busiest schedules with several hours dedicated to conducting 1:1s and strategy meetings with teammates. The highest level, CXOs, had the fewest reports. This is likely because they are furthest removed from direct reports and mostly manage other leaders.
We saw the largest variance in team size when looking at role functions. Sales (11.89), Engineering (10.33), and Business Development (10.75) had the largest average team size per manager. Given that 37% of our interviewees first managed during COVID, this creates an interesting problem. More technical roles often promote leaders based on technical skills, not soft skills. New managers are suddenly responsible for much larger teams, and without proper training, this can spell disaster for manager-report relations and team culture.
A year stripped of gatherings and vacations left many remote teammates stuck on a loop. With social issues and caretaking adding extra pressure, work became the main distraction. This lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Almost 70% of our interviewees* experienced burnout or mental health issues during the pandemic.
We wanted to assess how meeting culture not only affected teams, but also changed in the transition to fully remote. One marker is asynchronous work, the ability to work without real-time communication and messaging. We asked a subset of participants* whether they had gotten more asynchronous in response to the pandemic. Almost 60% of interviewees said they had. This pattern aligns with remote work experts who see asynchronous work as the best option for long-term work-from-home for its flexibility and time-zone friendliness.
At first glance, it appears as though various leadership roles experienced similar ratios of burnout. Senior Managers had the lowest burnout level with 64% reporting burnout during the pandemic. This rises to 72% for Directors and 75% for VPs. Burnout ratio drops down to 66% for CXOs. It could be that minor changes in burnout correlate with seniority and number of direct reports.
Our biggest takeaway from last year’s report was that soft skills–relationship building, and communication issues–were some of the top challenges for remote managers. People’s connections (not productivity!) were the biggest loss of 2020. To test whether this trend held, we asked our 200 managers the same question a year into the pandemic.