When your office is at home and your team is dotted all over the place, it does make it more challenging to demonstrate successful leadership. The rudiments of leadership, from setting and communicating a strategy, to motivating your team to perform and deliver on that strategy, and measuring success, are being tested and reworked. The leadership ritual of Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) in the physical workplace has been replaced by MBZA (Management by Zooming About) in the virtual world and it’s a tricky act to pull off. A new approach to leadership is required to reflect the increasingly agile and often virtual workplace. Indeed, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey Kevin Sneader calls this moment a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to consciously evolve the very nature and impact of the CEO role’.
The International Journal of Scientific and Technology Research has identified the major challenges of remote leadership as geography and isolation, communication, technology and security. The distance between teams makes it much harder to manage productivity – note Bank of England policymaker Jonathan Haskel added his voice to the choir this week on home working and its failure to boost productivity – and to keep everyone motivated. It is harder to bond, brainstorm and build morale with teams following the loss of social and physical interaction, and to notice individuals or groups who might require guidance or just that little bit of extra attention. Communicating virtually, we lack visual cues and social context, such as ‘intonation, facial expression, gestures and contextual cues’, and even the smallest misinterpretations can quickly escalate.
Managed well, however, the virtual world can be a place for a more democratic style of leadership that trusts, empowers and empathises with employees. Central to this is the need for a distinctly human approach; the last nine months have been challenging for us all and not being afraid to show emotion or to admit when you don’t have all the answers are signs of strength, not weakness, in leaders. They help to build trust as well as giving space for individuals and teams to step up and gain autonomy in their work. Being approachable and showing humanity is facilitated more than ever before with video conferencing, as we are invited to view each other not only as colleagues in the context of an office environment but as people in our homes and broader lives, allowing leaders to get closer to their teams and to stimulate engagement.
Back in the 1970s, psychologists defined The Big Five – those ingredients that make up an individual’s personality. They are worth reflecting on as you think about the role of leaders in the future:
1. Emotional stability
The brave new world of working remotely during lockdown has proved stressful and confusing for many employees. Being able to remain calm and reassuring in a time of crisis, and rapidly resolving personal and team pressures and conflicts are key.
Without the benefits of non-verbal body language, reaching out to colleagues on a regular basis and empathising at a human level are critical in building and sustaining trust in a virtual workforce.
3. Openness to experience
Change is the only constant in our COVID world and successful leadership is about recognising the opportunities that new ways of working present for employees and customers and embracing, not resisting, innovative technology.
With the threat of recession looming and survival top of many company agendas, focussing on the big picture and making sure you are seen to be doing what is right for staff, customers and the business is of great importance.
Remote working has challenged the hierarchical structure of many organisations and created a more flat-structured workplace in which listening to and exchanging ideas with colleagues and creating solutions where everybody wins are essential.
Today these ingredients are especially valuable as The Big Five traits you need to be a successful leader. And in the current virtual workplace environment, they’re more important than ever.