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More Stressful, Less Successful – Management in Times of Pandemic

Steinbeis study examines current developments in teamwork and individual performance

Surveys commissioned by the Robert Koch Institute show that second only to worrying about being infected by Covid-19, currently the biggest concern among respondents in Germany is what will happen to the economy. Sentiments within companies are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, firms are suffering decline or in some cases enjoying a welcome slowdown in business. Others are under increasing pressure to raise output. For their study, the experts at the Steinbeis Research Center for Management Analytics – Institute for Leadership, Agility and Digitization joined forces with zeb.research to paint an objective picture of whether businesses’ expectations have risen or dropped from a company standpoint, in which areas this is happening, and which companies are emerging from the crisis as more successful or resilient.

To date, there have been no studies based on scientifically validated methods into the changes in business requirements brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, or possible correlations with key success factors. There are also no studies to date in German-speaking countries that have looked in specific terms at the impact of “task loads” on individuals and teams, or the impact of leadership practice on the ability of companies to innovate. This was the challenge taken on by the Steinbeis experts.

Systematic assessment

In the 1980s, NASA developed a measurement tool for its aerospace program to record workloads. Its name for the tool was the NASA Task Load Index (TLX) (see https://humansystems.arc.nasa.gov/groups/TLX), and it is still widely used in a variety of industries worldwide. Aimed originally at assessing individual workload, the test has been expanded in recent years to include teams.

Based on the TLX, the Steinbeis project team conducted an anonymous survey of 176 people at a variety of companies on their personal assessment of mental, physical, and “deadline” stress levels before and during the coronavirus pandemic. They were also asked about factors identified through scientific meta-analysis as typical of successful teams (team success – other people’s opinions), and how successful teams considered themselves (team success – self-assessment). The survey finished with questions on the support provided by management, plus sociodemographic questions.

Key results

Analyzing work requirements before and during the pandemic showed that workloads have risen particularly strongly among teams, although on an individual level they have actually diminished. Innovation improves when people intensify their efforts, but overall, due to the current crisis there have been few changes in this regard.

Good leadership seems to play a protective role in exceptional situations like the current one. When people see managers as supportive, their perceptions of stress levels may go down, but this does not necessarily improve innovation.

What happens to personal commitment and team effort? One of the main effects of the coronavirus pandemic is that teams are making a greater effort (79%), but also personal commitment has risen (64%). Around half of all respondents said that demands on individuals and teams have intensified simultaneously (51%), but only a minority have witnessed a genuine slowdown (8%).

Considering these impacts, looking at objective success criteria and personal opinions together shows that exertion on two fronts results in a “flash in the pan.” Only a minority of respondents, 13%, have been “pacing” themselves over time, raising their individual commitment with only little need of coordination. Exertion on two levels – the flash in the pan – also resulted in lower scores in almost all areas of teamwork performance. Effective teams (like a “quiet force”) offer certain advantages when it comes to employee commitment and the quality of work. There is still a long way to go to work out what the success formula is, however: Innovation, motivation, and above all customer focus have suffered under the pandemic.

The sobering conclusion drawn from the survey by the Steinbeis experts is that management is committed during the crisis, but it doesn’t change. Instead, it still keeps doing things “by the book.” A great deal of energy is invested in providing individual support and organizing people’s work. There may be a perception that workloads decrease, but there are no real improvements in teamwork or innovation based on future needs. Worse still, even when teams function well, a particular amount of time and energy is still invested in improving the quality of work. Innovative drive, work motivation and, above all, customer orientation fall by the wayside.

The perception that things are going better than people thought they would and that – contrary to expectations – productivity is even rising in some cases, is ultimately only due to the “flash in the pan” effect. For most of the companies surveyed, individual and team effort increased, performance levels were kept up through high exertion, although not always productively, and time and effort were invested in the quality of work rather than renewal or customer focus.

Key findings of the study


  1. Effort (task load): Team stress has increased more than individual stress (79% vs. 64%): Additional effort among team members is the result of investing more energy in technology and coordination.
  2. Innovative capacity: People’s ability to innovate rises the moment individual effort rises. Coordination costs eat into any advantage gained. Innovation goes down.
  3. Management impact: The better the perception of management, the lower scores were given by respondents for the burden caused by the pandemic. Innovation improves, but not due to good leadership.
  4. Stress and performance: At most companies, individual and team effort rose (51%) and time and energy were mainly invested in unproductive coordination. Only 13% of respondents enjoyed sustained success resulting from individual commitment and functioning teams.


Prof. Dr. habil. Joachim Hasebrook (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Research Center for Management Analytics – Institute for Leadership, Agility and Digitalization (Munich)

Prof. Dr. Benedikt Hackl (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Research Center for Management Analytics – Institute for Leadership, Agility and Digitalization (Munich)

Dr. Sibyll Rodde (author)
Scientific assistant, zeb.research
zeb.rolfes.schierenbeck.associates gmbh (Münster)