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Without notice or training, leaders have scrambled to manage their teams from behind screens. Communication, transparency and trust have become more important than ever for managers to promote a positive virtual work culture, as they continue to adapt to the new normal.
Remote working has gained instant prominence around the globe, even in offices and sectors that traditionally did not support working from home. Leadership teams everywhere have had to adapt to virtual team management in this period of turbulence and transition.
As restrictions and reticence reign supreme, the seismic shift in work culture has created an increasing demand for leaders who have been able to successfully manage remote teams.
The ability to demonstrate adaptability and flexibility will make a senior executive more attractive to fellow executives and to companies. An evolving communication style that adapts to the environment and requirements will be a key asset for any leader. Executive search experts will find a leader’s proven successful management of a remote team a promising addition to the list of a potential leader’s attributes.
Leaders have realised that simply duplicating office processes to a virtual format does not necessarily create a successful remote work culture, and prompts the conversation as to what a culture even is. If ‘culture’ is the way that the employees in a company do things, then it is the formal and informal communication between employees and leaders and the simple gestures in daily interaction and activity.
The mementos on the desk, the chit-chat with co-workers in the break room, reading a leader’s non-verbal cues in a meeting: these are all gaps that a remote work culture cannot fill. Leaders have the crucial role of keeping the team motivated, positive and connected in a new environment.
To keep morale and productivity high, executives must become fluent in new languages and communication styles. Above all, they must build on leadership values, instilling transparency and trust to encourage a positive work culture among remote employees.
But managing from a distance isn’t about remote control. A team manager must also be mindful of not stressing employees out by micromanaging projects and people, as they may be used to doing in the office environment. This is where trust and transparency come into play. “As a leader, you should be able to trust your employees and not feel the urge to control them all the time,” says Stephan Surber, Global Head of the Financial Services Practice.
What has changed is that my clients are looking for ‘AQ’, the Adaptability Quotient: how you are adapting yourself, upskilling/reskilling, your management style and your flexibility to solutions when market circumstances are more volatile.
Managing remote teams has meant a virtual reinvention for some leaders, who have had to shed their “office” skin. Hiring managers increasingly look for additional qualities when recruiting for leadership roles, whether as a remote team manager or as an in-office C-suite head. “What has changed is that my clients are looking for ‘AQ’, the Adaptability Quotient: how you are adapting yourself, upskilling/reskilling, your management style and your flexibility to solutions when market circumstances are more volatile,” explains Surber.
Adaptability Quotient (AQ) is a way to measure people’s adaptability, and can be used to help measure past performance or look at their individual potential. A prevailing definition of AQ, from Decoding AQ by Ross Thornley, explains it as a measurement of “the abilities, characteristics, and environmental factors which impact the successful behaviours and actions of people, and organizations to effectively respond to uncertainty, new information, or changed circumstances.”
At least 40% of leaders expressed low self- confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely, in an ongoing longitudinal study by researchers at the Centre for Transformative Work Design. Between April and July 2020, the project interviewed 1,200 respondents in 24 countries. Leaders expressed trust issues with employees and an inability to adapt to new communication styles that remote employee management demands.
A leader’s communication skills are vital to survive and thrive in remote work environments. Surber says, “Communication abilities play a big role because the amount of engagement with remote employees increases. When not meeting the team live in the office, a leader needs to adopt a communication style that is embracing and motivating by giving the right message with just the right level of expectation and pressure.”
The suddenness with which the requirement to work from home was thrust upon the world has seen executives adapt differently – some are coping better than others.
“Leaders are adapting – they are changing their mindset – as the situation evolves. One of my clients, a Chief Investment Officer, a Swiss professional who manages billions, told me in May 2020: ‘In March I rejected the thought of working from home for even one day because I didn’t believe it could work. Now I see how well it works: not just the technical set-up but also the efficiency. Facing my experience, I had to revise my opinion.’ Clearly, the old way of thinking about work is long over,” says Surber.
He believes that many companies will embrace flexibility as part of their work culture. “What comes along with flexibility in a culture is the accountability and the trust for each team member,” he adds.
Shrewd observers of the constantly evolving work culture believe that the future of work will be a mix of home and office working. Simon Lindrea, UK Head of the CFO and Financial Services Practices, says, “Executive teams do not view full-time working from home as a permanent thing. A blended model, where employees can work from home 1–2 days a week, is more realistic once the pandemic is over.”
Executive teams do not view full-time working from home as a permanent thing. A blended model, where employees can work from home 1–2 days a week, is more realistic once the pandemic is over.
Onsite and online, team cohesion boils down to empathy, positivity and balance, Surber adds. “In a real-life meeting (with clients or colleagues), the personal, non-verbal cues come across much more than in a video call. This is why I believe that a combination of both will be key in the future for succeeding. When not together in an office, you won’t have that spirit of corporate culture and teamwork which you have when you work together with people in the same room.”
At the other end of the spectrum, some C-suite managers embraced the remote work culture because they had no choice. “Most people managers I have spoken with cannot wait to get back to the office and see people face-to-face, because human interaction is often the core of the business culture – especially in areas like sales,” says Lindrea.
He views the work-from-home revolution as a temporary reaction to the pandemic and not a paradigm shift. Citing the example of how senior leaders responded to the change, Lindrea says, “For most C-suite level leaders, it is still hugely important to be physically accessible to their employees and fellow executives. As soon as it was possible to return to the office in the UK, most did so to give their employees a sense of stability and security, to support peers and maintain culture.”
Lindrea explains that many senior leaders are used to working very long hours and need a level of human interaction. Businesses need to blend in-person contact with employees’ need to feel trusted to work in an outcome-focused manner.
Building this culture cannot only come from the top down. Dynamic voices, the people who thrive in remote settings, should work together to help build the remote culture that many currently find lacking. How leadership tries to replicate the precious ‘micro-interactions’ of the office in these virtual spaces is an ongoing question, but it starts with the stability, security and camaraderie that Lindrea has seen at work since the start of the home–office revolution.
Stephan SurberSenior PartnerSwitzerland
Simon LindreaSenior PartnerUK
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