Many organizations have switched to a remote work model or settled on a hybrid version, which gives employees the flexibility they want while allowing organizations to maintain some structure and control. But regardless of the specific model (100% remote or a hybrid approach), employers are faced with a question:
Assuming this trend toward a more virtual workplace is a sound management practice, how does it impact leaders’ ability to effectively manage people/teams who are not in an office every day?
Since the late 1800s, offices have been considered the most efficient way to manage the workforce, but the pandemic has changed the way organizations think about and define the workplace. When COVID forced many people to work from home, a lot of them found that they appreciated the flexibility it allowed. Now they want to continue working from home even as the pandemic begins to wane. In response, many organizations have switched to a remote work model or settled on a hybrid version, which gives employees the flexibility they want while allowing organizations to maintain some structure and control. But regardless of the specific model (100% remote or a hybrid approach), employers are faced with a question: assuming this trend toward a more virtual workplace is a sound management practice, how does it impact leaders’ ability to effectively manage people/teams who are not in an office every day?
One of the first large research studies on remote workers was conducted by researchers at Stanford. Results from a pilot suggested that remote workers had a 13 percent increase in performance, and the flexibility of remote work increased employee satisfaction and decreased turnover. It also significantly reduced overhead costs associated with managing office space, travel, and other environmental considerations. Of course, this study was industry-specific and there is a wide variation of industry adoption rates of this model globally. So, even though remote work in general tracks in a positive direction, its impact may be slightly different for different organizations.
When COVID began to close offices and people had to work from home, there was renewed interest in the 2013 experiment and more organizations began to see it as a new reality. In addition, employees began demanding more flexibility and a better work/life balance, and employers were faced with finding the solution for their workplace. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, the preference for some form of remote work continues to increase. Only 4.3 percent of all workers were remote in 2010, but 1 in 4 people (26 percent) worked virtually some or all of the time though 2021. Predictions suggest that although the numbers will level out as conditions “normalize,” by 2025 over 36.2 million people in the U.S. will work remotely at least part of the time.
While Only 4.3% of all workers were remote in 2010, 26% worked virtually in 2021. Predictions suggest that although the numbers will level out as conditions “normalize,” by 2025 over 36.2 million people in the U.S. will work remotely at least part of the time.
One of the questions we are just beginning to explore is how leadership will help employees adapt to a virtual or hybrid environment. We have a comprehensive profile of what it takes to be a good leader, and while that profile does not change significantly, it will. At the very least, it will require leaders to adjust their expectations of themselves and their employees and anticipate what their direct reports expect of them. There are at least four areas where leaders will experience change and may have to rethink their approach:
- Culture. It is increasingly important for organizations to identify leaders who can prioritize company culture for their employees. If you think about how culture is built and shared, much of that occurs through employees observing what behaviors are tolerated and rewarded in the organization. This means that leaders need to be very clear in communicating the organization’s vision, purpose, strategy, and the role that individuals/teams play in the company’s success. Whether employees are in the office or working remotely (or both), leaders must find ways to continually model and reinforce core values (e.g., belonging, inclusion) and behaviors, so they underlie employees’ approach to their work, regardless of location.
- Performance. The key indicators of performance have traditionally been based on what is observable, so people who were more visible had the opportunity to be seen as more productive. While presence can certainly be performative, workers who are not in the office, in part or at all, may not be recognized for their true contribution. Outcome-based appraisals suggest that leaders must be ready to equip people with the knowledge, skills, tools, and resources they need to do their work, and trust that they have or will proactively seek insight from leaders to best achieve their goals. This means leaders must be more in tune with the individual contributors and teams they oversee without micromanaging them.
- Teamwork. Most work in organizations is a team effort. In the past, the entire group would not generally be held accountable for one person’s ineptitude. Although people worked as part of a team, they were likely recognized (at least in part) for their individual contribution to the group goal, based primarily on the assessment of their manager or team leader. However, as remote and hybrid models gain popularity and measures of performance shift, individual accountability will likely take a back seat to the accountability of the team for its successes and failures. This places more value on team competencies and outcomes, where the entire group shares in each other’s successes and failures. Rewards will shift from recognizing individual goals to highlighting a shared mission and goals. This requires a more transparent and collective sense of how people are recognized for their efforts, where the team also weighs in on those decisions. Thus, compensation will be grounded in how well employees meet the leader’s expectations and the expectations of their team. This increase in interdependence suggests the need for leaders and direct reports to work more closely to set goals/expectations and share decision-making power.
- Emotional Intelligence. It is important for managers to be in tune with the uncertainty and ambiguity that are likely to accompany change. A good way to manage returning and new employees is to anticipate a lot of trial and error and accept that it will take time to learn how to navigate the new normal. Research suggests that employees look to their managers for cues on how to act during change or crisis. Acknowledging stress and communicating expectations can provide the support employees need to face challenges with a sense of purpose and focus. Beyond that, leaders will be tasked with managing work/life balance in a way they have not had to do in the past. More than ever they will need to be seen as authentic, meaning they will have to consistently model moral and fair behavior, empathy, and strong interpersonal skills when communicating both virtually and face to face. The more forward-thinking companies will invest in leaders by providing them with training and coaching in some of the “softer skills,” because the consequences of low morale and lack of retention may be significant.
As organizations begin to normalize their work approaches, employees and leaders must remain flexible and accept the uncertainties associated with transformation. Leaders have a responsibility to set the tone and chart a direction based on their strengths and ability to connect with others. Those with the humility, courage, and commitment to reinvent their approach to adapt to changing conditions will likely excel at what lies ahead.
Meet the Author
Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D.
Maryanne has more than 30 years of experience as a Consultant and Advisor in the areas of leadership assessment, organizational development and executive coaching. As a Partner of DHR Leadership Consulting, she helps clients assess fit for executive, C-suite and board positions.