How do we develop leaders for the workplace when the workplace has disappeared?
We’ve officially moved our residence to Miami. As I look around the unpacked boxes, waiting for the decorator, I look out the windows on Biscayne Bay and the high-rise cranes around the Miami metroplex, I have two thoughts. First, I’m lucky being here for the weather, the restaurants, the cycling, and the new friends.
Second, what’s not to like about remote work?
If I were just getting out of school in this world I, too, would be asking my prospective employers if I’d be able “live anywhere” if I take their job – and that IS what young people are asking these days in their workplace.
Reading the business media, I see that the consensus is we mostly prefer flexibility and, more precisely, autonomy in our work – we like working when we want, where we want. And we’ve demonstrated that it doesn’t diminish productivity and that it can actually boost it. (Caveat: we need more study on this. This answer is subject to change.) And companies are catering to this to recruit the best talent.
Relearning leadership development for the remote workplace
As a consultant and coach my work has always been semi-remote. Even in my time at Center for Creative Leadership, Cornell, Duke, and HEC, those campuses were more of a mothership for far flung engagements than a nine-to-five office.
Yet for 30 years, my job has focused on developing people to lead, mostly from inside offices – those city states organized for commerce, designed for imminently interrupt-able workspaces and frequent meetings, often with a clear hierarchy of authority and leadership.
However, since 2020 we’ve all been relearning leadership development for the new remote environment where autonomy is both a mode of work and must-have to compete in the War for Talent. Holger Resinger and Dane Fetterer, in HBR.org found that 77% of workers said they want to work for a company that lets them work from anywhere.
As learning leaders, what should we be looking for in this environment?
Achievement may be more important
One study published in the Journal of Business Psychology in August 2020 suggests that achievement is more important in choosing remote leaders than ascription (all those traits we commonly think of for leaders).
“…the new data showing that the confidence, intelligence, and extroversion that have long propelled ambitious workers into the executive suite are not enough online, because they simply don’t translate into virtual leadership. Instead, workers who are organised, dependable and productive take the reins of virtual teams. Finally, doers lead the pack – at least remotely,” wrote Arianne Cohen for BBC.com
If this finding is accurate, maybe we’re moving a little closer to meritocracy. Leaders now need to show results. “There will be a test!”
Everybody needs to be their own leader
Another factor may be the need for more people to assume leadership roles. The nature of “autonomy” requires that everyone be their own mini leader, with greater focus, initiative, and accountability.
And when the organization is dispersed, are more layers of leaders needed? John Kotter and Gaurav Gupta writing in Chief Executive, think this may be the case:
“While a few leaders at the top of the organization could process the relevant information and make good decisions in a slower-moving environment, organizations now need many individuals throughout the organization providing leadership and direction.”
The need for empathy is at an all-time high
Remember, too, that through it all, there’s still the pandemic. As leaders adapt to the virtual workplace and more autonomous business models, they still have lingering stressors affecting their families and the families of their team members.
Seb Murray in Financial Times does a good job describing this imperative amidst Covid, inflation, and war, with his article, “Leaders learn tough lessons about resilience” that closes with the advice that our current leaders may need to “heal and repair.”
The workplace as we have known it, may have disappeared, but we’re all still here. Let’s keep learning.