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What on Earth is Wrong with Virtual Leaders?

Every single day I read multiple articles about leaders demanding a “return to office” and in parallel others, where workers want to continue with 100% remote work.

Are leaders’ capabilities to deal with virtual teams the challenge, or are virtual workers the challenge or is it a combination of both?

Well, in my opinion it is non of the above.  Let‘s get real about this and cut ourselves some serious slack and grace here. How can we expect after, in some cases decades of going to ‘the office‘, receiving information and working a certain way, to just switch the way we work and change our behaviours and neural pathways just like that. This is going to take serious consideration and effort on all sides.  In all new things there are periods of discomfort while we evolve and grow.  Work has not slowed down in these times either, if anything it feels like we are racing through a tsunami of technological and social transformation never before seen while being expected to transform ourselves with limited past experience to call upon.  In reality, we are living in a trailblazing, real-time test phase, and yes, of course it is challenging.

Leaders are saddled with hefty real estate and operational costs that served the past.  Offices are sitting partially or in some cases fully empty and leaders have to make short term cost optimisations and long-term strategic decisions about the way forward.  Those decisions are not easy, nor are future situations easily predictable.  Gone are the days when office redesign is the priority, today the question is “do we even need an office?”.

Not only does the physical workspace come into question but also many processes related to it are impacted or changed and need to be managed by leaders.

Let me call out just a few of those processes which are worthy of their own article (which I will do another time) to dig a bit deeper.

  1. Health and safety regulations
  2. Contractual agreements and working hours
  3. Technology provision and support
  4. Delivery and performance management
  5. Workflow and task management
  6. Performance evaluation and feedback
  7. Team identity and commitment
  8. Communication and information sharing
  9. Documentation and knowledge management 
  10. Decision making processes
  11. Training and professional development delivery
  12. Employee onboarding and integration

It is important to approach the virtual/hybrid work debate with a degree of realism and optimism considering all dimensions before either side makes unrealistic demands on the other.

As a pioneer of virtual work starting in the late 90’s, I have lived the process, physical and cultural transformation over and over in many iterations.  My key learning is, that whatever is done, is done better together with connectivity, inclusivity and collaboration.  A top-down instruction will not work, maybe short term but not in the long-term and neither will a bottom-up demand or movement.  If you want a committed workforce, they need to be engaged and want to work for you. Being an attractive employer today is a key consideration for new hires and stayers.

What does it actually mean when there is no place to call work?

Work is an action not a place, but places bring meaning, identity and connection.  So how do we bring meaning and connection to work independent of its place and should we?  I believe it is feasible to have fully remote work, hybrid work and in some cases full presence work.  All humans are different in their life situations, many do not live in places they can easily work, many have long travel times or commitments that test their ability to do all of these models and some jobs just don’t fit the model and that is just a simple fact.  Technology facilitates work from almost any place today (for many jobs) and I believe we should leverage its full possibilities.  However, in parallel we can only succeed if we do the real work to optimise virtual connection, identity, team commitment and performance and virtual leadership capability.

Below I outline some learnings and considerations to approach the dialogue on Virtual/Hybrid or Presence work discussion in the workplace to come to a more collaborative resolution:

Shift to a Leading by Influence and steer away from leading by authority. Leading by influence refers to a leadership style that focuses on motivating and guiding others through the power of persuasion, personal credibility, and the ability to inspire and gain the trust and respect of others.  Leading by influence can be highly effective in situations where formal authority may be limited, such as cross-functional teams, virtual work settings, or collaborative projects. It emphasizes the importance of building relationships, trust, and credibility, enabling leaders to guide and inspire others towards shared goals.

Collaborative Decision Making, build a governance model to develop a future working model and include diverse stakeholders while looking 360 degrees at the company, its employees, processes and future potential challenges alongside old or current working models.  Preparing for the future is key here so you are moving ahead of the times and the times are not moving you.

Establish Trust, as always trust is the foundation of any effective collaboration.  Leaders need to consider if there is another pandemic or something equally disruptive how they will mitigate risks to business continuity. Workers need to consider who pays their salary, what no physical workplace could mean, and how one will identify with the work they do.  Identity is a major factor in commitment and motivation which comes from ones own sense of self and collective identity.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate, I cannot iterate enough that communication is critical in such disruptive times of transformation. Even if it is not popular, the truth and single source of information clearly put out is absolutely essential.  Even if the communication is “we are unclear yet but…..”.  This prevents gossip and provides a framework and lets people know that things are on the radar.  Leaders must be open and honest about why they seek what they seek and in turn see that one size will not fit all and is not necessarily the best solution. A governance with the right diverse stakeholders should be able to determine the right way forward with inclusivity while bringing the rest of the organisation with it.

By implementing these recommendations, organizations can navigate the challenges of virtual work more effectively, ensuring a productive and engaging environment for both leaders and virtual workers. Collaboration, inclusivity, and continuous improvement will be key in adapting to the evolving landscape of work.

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Karen, leveraging 25 years of international expertise, is your go-to HR consultant and speaker for organisational and people development for Future Work.

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June 22, 2023


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