Leading remote workers in the digital era – Thoughts from Dr Petros Chamakiotis

Having to be a manager of geographically dispersed teams has been a common challenge for many of us for quite some time.  However, these challenges have been heightened further in recent years as workers and organisations continue to new ways of working, such as flexible, virtual and remote arrangements. This phenomenon, primarily brought about through the advancing capability and usability of the technology we all carry, brings with it unique leadership requirements.  It’s these requirements that have been (in 2019) significantly overlooked, leaving many managers to fumble through periods of trial and error in order to discover what’s likely to go wrong.  In many organisations managers are having to revert back to self-taught methods, trying things out, failing and learning to lead effectively all over again.  There is of course nothing per-se wrong with this type of social learning.  It’s just that we now have enough remote working examples and experience for academics to have developed some exciting and new understanding, insights and models.  In short, there’s no need to learn by trial and error; we already know many of the pitfalls and trip hazards associated with leading remote teams and new ways of leading are available to managers who do have teams and/or individuals working in geographically dispersed environments.

An example of this can be found in the way people learn from each other.  Social learning is thought to be up to 70% of the way in which adults learn.  We observe, we witness, we listen in on conversations, we see what’s working, what’s not.  None of these things ever get written down in a learning log, but they do form a constant and effective source of development for each of us as we navigate through each day.  Make me a remote worker and suddenly I switch off a significant input to my personal and the organisational learning.  The danger is that remote team workers can slowly become blunt.  Repeating the same practices and even mistakes, but not adding the development of collective social learning that was an unspoken constant.  There is a simple solution, it’s just that managers aren’t aware of the issue until it becomes more significant.  Add to that the fact that many people think about changing jobs when they stop learning, and all of a sudden remote working can inadvertently result in good people exiting the organisation because they are feeling stale / demotivated by their lack of growth.  With this awareness, managers can see a new purpose in the teams’ physical meetings.  When you do get them together, sharing the good and the ugly of what’s been going on can become a vital requirement beyond just doing the job and delivering the traditional agenda points.

There are many other such observations that can be so useful when you are the manager of a remote team or indeed are a remote team worker.

Dr Petros Chamakiotis (@petros_cham) of University of Sussex Business School writes:

The growing popularity of digital technologies has given rise to #newwaysofwork. Ranging from flexible work to remote work, #newwaysofwork enabled by digital technologies are increasingly adopted by companies due to their benefits for both employees and employers. Employees are given more flexibility in terms of where and when to work, whereas employers can cut down on costs associated with office space with employees working from home or other locations (e.g., Jimenez, Boehe, Taras, & Caprar, 2017).

However, alongside those benefits come a number of challenges, raising a number of questions. For example, are traditional leadership practices still relevant in the digital context? How can leaders adjust their style to successfully manage colleagues with whom they have little, if any, face-to-face communication? Academics in the field of human resources management (HRM) highlight the importance of employee wellbeing when aiming for high performing employees (e.g., Nielsen et al., 2017). So what can leaders do to ensure their colleagues are well and engaged without feeling isolated? And lastly, how can leaders boost their teams’ creative potential to maximize the possibilities of generating innovative solutions?

Clearly challenging leadership as we know it, there is a significant need to up skill our manaers and teams by, for example, practically demonstrating how leadership can be exercised in the context of remote work (e.g., Zander, Zettinig, & Mäkelä, 2013), sharing what leaders can do to increase their colleagues’ wellbeing and engagement levels (Panteli, Yalabik, & Rapti, 2018), and teaching how leaders can boost their teams’ performance on tasks requiring creativity and innovation (Chamakiotis & Panteli, 2017).

 

References

Chamakiotis, P., & Panteli, N. (2017). Leading the creative process: the case of virtual product design. New Technology, Work and Employment, 32(1), 28–42.

Jimenez, A., Boehe, D. M., Taras, V., & Caprar, D. V. (2017). Working Across Boundaries: Current and Future Perspectives on Global Virtual Teams. Journal of International Management, 23(4), 341–349.

Nielsen, K., Nielsen, M. B., Ogbonnaya, C., Känsälä, M., Saari, E., & Isaksson, K. (2017). Workplace resources to improve both employee well-being and performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Work & Stress, 31(2), 101–120.

Panteli, N., Yalabik, Z. Y., & Rapti, A. (2018). Fostering work engagement in geographically-dispersed and asynchronous virtual teams. Information Technology & People. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-04-2017-0133

Zander, L., Zettinig, P., & Mäkelä, K. (2013). Leading global virtual teams to success. Organizational Dynamics, 42(3), 228–237.