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The new reality for executives: Leading at a distance

In their new book, ‘Leading at a Distance,’ two Spencer Stuart experts say all managers will need to get good at virtual leadership.

The new reality for executives: Leading at a distance
[Source images: Oakozhan/iStock; RakicN/iStock]

We can say with conviction: The future will feature more virtual work, not less. Some companies will go to one of the extremes—either minimizing remote work to get as close to the way things were before the pandemic, or shedding all vestiges of in-office work with the attendant commuting, business travel, and relocations. But most organizations will find themselves somewhere in the middle in a hybrid model. In this future, a key driver of organizational success will be how effective leaders are in leading at a distance.

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For David Solomon, Goldman Sachs CEO, the future is less about “going back to the way things were,” and more about moving forward. “With our office interactions and all of the ways we will operate, the key message is that we’ll have more flexibility in the way we’ll work,” he said. “It is much more powerful talking about this in a forward-looking way than trying to get ‘back to normal.'”

At the Starbucks headquarters, driven by a company-wide mindset of innovation and agility, the company has completely reimagined the way employees both work and operate in their workplace. While their folks were working from home, a year-long construction project was launched to create “a central gathering place where individuals interact, build relationships, [and] propagate a culture of connection.”

Figuring out how fast and how far you are likely to go on this spectrum of virtual work will largely be a function of the sector in which you work, but other factors will play a role, too. Let’s explore a few of them.

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SOME SECTORS ARE MORE SUITED TO VIRTUAL WORK 

A McKinsey future-of-work study confirms that remote work is likely to be more prevalent in industries such as technology, finance, insurance, and professional services. People whose work involves physically touching products will mostly continue to be on-site. As Carol Tomé, CEO of UPS acknowledged, most of her company’s 500,000+ workers are front-line employees delivering packages or working in sorting facilities around the world. While there will continue to be tremendous innovation in how essential workers do their jobs, they will remain out on the world’s roads or in the air delivering the packages—and in the process, helping many of us live and work from home. Many other companies also have essential functions that can’t be done remotely.

Despite advances in automation and robotics, most of those jobs are not going to be remote anytime soon. Nor will many of the healthcare professionals, cable and telecom engineers, or many energy or factory workers.

THE GENDER GAP MAY GROW EVEN WIDER

Despite the number of women who exited the workforce during the pandemic, we are hoping that the road ahead will bring fewer exits and more reentry as things get back to some semblance of normalcy. However, the most concerning aspect of this shift will be the long-term impact on diversity and gender equity at work. An article in Time magazine talks about this disturbing trend: 885,000 women left the workforce over a few periods of several months in 2020, while only 216,000 men exited during that same period. In addition, one in four women are cutting back on hours or changing roles to ones that are less demanding. The long-term consequences of this are unknown, of course, but there is nothing good about them. Fewer women in the workforce increases gender pay gaps and the lack of diversity in senior executive roles.

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LEADERS WILL BE MORE SELECTIVE WITH BUSINESS TRAVEL

What will business travel look like in the new normal? While answers to this question vary widely, it has become apparent to many senior leaders that travel is not always necessary and that they may be much more selective about when to travel in the future. A McKinsey report that examined the future of business travel predicts that regional and domestic travel will likely return first, and that in-person sales or client meetings will take precedence over internal meetings. Projections by several airlines estimate that approximately a quarter of pre-pandemic business travel will be lost for the long-term, if not for good. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC that the company will be focusing on leisure fliers because it is likely to be 10 years before business travel returns to pre-pandemic levels.

TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION WILL ACCELERATE VIRTUAL WORK

When Darleen wrote her initial book in 2010, she interviewed executives from companies that were using Telepresence, which at that time was Cisco’s innovative (and expensive) videoconferencing platform. Many leaders lamented that while Telepresence was great, it was not widely accessible, often reserved for senior executives. Since then, advancements in technology have continued to change how we work. Zoom, Teams, Webex, and Blue Jeans are now common household names, and these platforms have powered millions of remote workers and children engaged in distance learning. Online collaboration sites like Miro, Mural, and Notion have enhanced innovation and information sharing for remote employees.

Leading at a Distance by James M. Citrin and Darleen DeRosa

What will technology look like in the next decade? Technology companies will continue to focus on enhancing the user experience with videoconferencing. While these tools facilitate how we work, they also can be cognitively draining. Will companies continue to build platforms that make it easier for people to drop into a virtual water cooler or café to have an informal discussion? Some technology companies are continuing to develop Virtual Reality software to mimic the office space environment. Organizations are experimenting with gamification to foster collaboration and fun, and to help deliver leadership development to a remote workforce.

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FOR SOME PEOPLE REMOTE WORK WILL BE UNSUSTAINABLE

Writing in the Atlantic in October 2020, Amanda Mull contended that “Generation Work-From-Home May Never Recover.” She argued that many people like the structure, routine, focus, and socialization provided by offices. She observed that some people value strict boundaries between their work and personal lives. Some people prefer to leave work at work; others have living situations (small residences, noisy roommates or partners) that make it extremely inconvenient to work remotely. The pandemic brought all of these issues to the fore—and as offices reopen, there are some people who will absolutely want to return. If they work at companies that decide to go all-remote, the odds are they will find someplace else to work.

THE HYBRID MODEL WILL PRESENT NEW KINDS OF CHALLENGES

Our own research clearly confirms the increase in virtual work. Within the sectors that lend themselves to remote work, some organizations, such as Facebook, Twitter, Zillow, and Shopify, are focusing on very flexible work-from-home options. But many other organizations will be implementing hybrid models. Verizon chief human resources officer Christy Pambianchi illustrates the shift in the future state: “We won’t return to the office the same way; we’ll return to geographic hubs.” Yet other companies, like Dropbox, are sensitive to the challenges that come with this hybrid model and have already put a stake in the ground by making its workforce virtual first. This means that its 3,000 employees will work remotely most of the time but sometimes go into an office, which they are calling “Dropbox Studios.” Dropbox opted to forgo a hybrid structure that would possibly create an uneven playing field among employees. The Dropbox Studios are for collaboration and gatherings, or collaborative spaces where people can engage with colleagues.

We already touched on the unique challenges that come with this hybrid model. As more companies embrace it, we expect new challenges will arise. Among them:

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  • There is a plethora of research on the importance of psychological safety at work, and we believe that creating this safety will become even more important as the hybrid approach grows. It may become harder to detect a loss of psychological safety in a virtual setting, and leaders need to be more deliberate about this when some employees are in the office and others are at home. Leaders need to focus on creating an equitable culture where people feel safe speaking up, voicing concerns, and feeling comfortable making mistakes.
  • Cliques or subgroups form in physical offices, and they will become more evident in all-remote or hybrid cultures, too. To avoid the problems this can create, leaders must identify subgroups that may be forming, and take steps to avoid the erosion of trust they can create. In a hybrid model, when team members begin leaving remote team members out of discussions, collaboration and trust will suffer.
  • One of the biggest concerns from employees about not being in the office is that “out of sight is out of mind.” If organizations are promoting a hybrid model, it is critical to ensure that leaders treat people equitably. Do in-office employees get promoted more or receive more projects since they are “top of mind” to their boss? If leaders are serious about telecommuting and a hybrid model, they should model this by working from home part of the time.
  • In a hybrid culture, where people aren’t required to be in the office often, fears may arise that people who go in more frequently will enjoy career advantages. As Jane Datta from NASA articulated, “the risk is the hybrid environment where you lose the real benefits of being together and 
create a two-class system in the meeting where the people on screen aren’t really participating as fully.” To head off these concerns, HR leaders should track rates of promotion and career progression for employees working fully remote, fully in the office, and in the hybrid model. This will help ensure an even playing field and allay any fears.
  • Some people will reduce their engagement if they’re working remotely too often. In addition to tracking promotion rates, measure employee engagement over time to examine differences in the hybrid model. Our Spencer Stuart colleagues at Kincentric recommend periodic pulse surveys to monitor engagement and see what is working well and what can be improved.

Kathleen Hogan, chief people officer at Microsoft, raised a critical point about what many leaders have learned from the remote work experience. “Once we’re in the promised land of being safe to come back to work,” she said, “I think this all will be better in that we’ll have navigated this incredible period, and we’ll cherish being in person together. But we will have figured out that it doesn’t have to be five days a week in the office, the way we used to.”

For more from Leading at a Distance, please check out this excerpt on Inc.com.


Excerpted from the book Leading at a Distance. Copyright © 2021 by Spencer Stuart International Ireland Limited. The book was published on May 25, 2021, by John Wiley & Sons. Reprinted by permission.

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