Good leaders and companies put people first—virtually or in-person
AU business professor explores challenges of virtual, in-person, and hybrid work models
Research since the start of the pandemic has shown that managers are more effective at completing their own tasks due to fewer interruptions relative to working at the office. This increased efficiency, however, has come at the expense of the people aspects of leadership, such as developing and coaching employees.
Many managers are struggling as leaders while working from home, and for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s harder to navigate the delicate balance between coaching employees and being perceived as a micromanager when working virtually.
For others, the loss of spontaneous interactions, such as an informal hallway or coffee chat, decreases opportunities to exert informal influence and makes staying in the loop a challenge.
“Many managers are struggling as leaders while working from home, and for a variety of reasons.”– Dr. Alyson House, assistant professor of strategic human resource management
Leaders must once again put people first
Managers are not oblivious to these challenges. Many simply put people-related matters on hold at the beginning of the pandemic to prioritize company survival and crisis management.
However, the point has been reached—if not already passed—where leaders must again put people first. Organizations must also come to terms with how they’re going to do business and manage employees post-COVID, be it in-person, virtually, or something in between.
If they get it wrong, leaders and companies risk losing good employees who might go elsewhere for new challenges, opportunities, and development.
Good leadership is about relationships
As always, good leadership is not only about technical expertise, but also building relationships. Leaders must find ways to both inspire and support employees to do their best work.
In a virtual setting, this can be achieved through clear objectives, delegation, and performance assessments based on results the employee is achieving, rather than looking simply at the hours they have worked.
“Good leadership is not only about technical expertise, but also building relationships.”
Fostering relationships in virtual spaces isn’t easy but there are options such as holding virtual office hours, virtual water coolers, instant messaging tools, formal mentoring, and setting norms of communication. This helps the employee know that they can set up times for a virtual catch-up or understand expectations around email response times.
The best leaders of the future are likely to be those who can develop and maintain strong social ties with their employees regardless of distance.
It’s not only up to managers to figure it out
Leaving managers to navigate the virtual world on their own isn’t enough; companies need a co-ordinated response.
During the early days of the pandemic, this meant companies adopting work-from-home polices. More recently, we’ve seen greater emphasis on geographic flexibility via work-from-anywhere arrangements.
When companies can hire from anywhere, their talent pools expand considerably, although sometimes at the expense of increased administrative and travel costs, time zone considerations, and new regulatory requirements, such as tax considerations.
Despite the potential costs, a recent study found a work-from-anywhere policy increased employee productivity by 4.4 per cent on top of productivity gains from working from home.
The hybrid work model
Now that work-from-home and work-from-anywhere options are on the table for the foreseeable future, many organizations are trying to sort out a hybrid model.
There is no consensus on what exactly this looks like, other than to say it does not fall at either extreme of the office-home continuum. Where a business lands depends on choices and trade-offs.
For example, when a company opts to work asynchronously, meaning employees are more empowered to manage their time, working from home can increase productivity but decrease collaboration. In a synchronous model, face-to-face work can improve collaboration at the expense of focused attention.
Regardless of the choice, the switch to hybrid shouldn’t be made solely from the company’s perspective; it must take individuals’ concerns into account, too. As with any organizational change, perceptions of unfairness or inequitable treatment can occur if not managed carefully.
Options for the future of work
When all pandemic restrictions are lifted, will certain days of the week be set aside for in-office work and other days for working at home? This option is conducive to working from home but not from anywhere.
Or, will only certain weeks of the month, or weeks in a year, be face-to-face? Both are more conducive to work-from-anywhere.
No matter the chosen ratio, leaders must ensure that days spent working at the office emphasize the benefits of face-to-face interactions that have been lost over time.
In the meantime, managers are reminded that “loneliness is not a lack of company, but a lack of purpose.” Without a focus on the people-related aspects of management, it might just be your company’s purpose that feels most lonely—if so, it’s time to bring it out of isolation.