The coronavirus pandemic hit with a vengeance. The world went into lockdown. The biggest and brightest in tech — Google, Facebook, Microsoft —decentralized to thousands of employee homes and were followed out of the office by the rest of the corporate world.
Many have begun to take seriously the idea that this pandemic will kickstart a remote work revolution. Few, however, have fully dissected what that revolution would truly mean to employees and to leaders. When a workplace moves to the living room, an entirely new set of dynamics moves with it.
Remote Work Is More Than Complicated
When remote employees first sit down to work, they find plenty of devices and applications already in place to help them connect with each other and the wider world. Countless technology solutions that are already used everyday allow us to remotely allocate tasks, track employee performance, monitor customer engagement, and contact colleagues and teams with a quick click or tap. Leadership in this new virtual paradigm should theoretically only require a few slight adjustments to normal practice, right?
No. Virtual leadership is full of complexity.
The problems that our most familiar technologies are designed to solve are complicated problems that can be tackled by expertise and elbow grease. While solving these problems is not light work, they fall neatly within a longstanding area of specialism: An expert, or group of experts, can isolate and solve a complicated problem. For example:
- How do we secure virtual private networks (VPNs) across multiple remote servers?
- How can we integrate artificial intelligence (AI) to automate workflows?
- How can we increase social media engagement while maximizing return on investment (ROI)?
The problems that exist in fully virtual teams aren’t, in this sense, complicated. They are, far more often, complex: They involve human behavior and emotion rather than process and infrastructure and, therefore, cannot be solved by a singular expertise.
Ensuring that team members feel engaged, supported and involved; that they feel they can contribute intellectually as well as productively; and that they understand the part they play in the long-term aspirations of the business — these are complex challenges that virtual leaders must solve. Doing it right is essential to the success of an organization, and yet few tools are available to help lead remotely.
The Vulnerabilities of Remote Teams
As leaders adapt to the long-term realities of managing remote teams, they will find that their main internal challenges will be complex ones, centered around workforce engagement and attitude. When an office is atomized and spread out across many homes, an entire wealth of needs, concerns and solutions often go unheard.
In an office environment, these complex problems are often solved organically, by a million little experiments among employees, through trial and error. Steve Jobs, for example, famously created only one set of bathrooms in the Pixar office’s central atrium to encourage — or force — daily interactions among employees.
If remote work is to thrive beyond the current quarantine, we must shake it up with a new and dynamic combination of technology and leadership practice. Leaders must go beyond using technology to tackle only the complicated parts of connecting workers and look for solutions designed to engage the diverse and often silent majority that makes up their workforce.
Leaders can’t afford to ignore the myriad of insight that auto-generate among team members facing new working practices. Like never before, they need to reach out and collect the perspectives that they otherwise wouldn’t hear, to understand the most important needs and concerns that their remote teams have at any given moment. And, they need to regularly invite insights from individuals across all corners of their business that can help them make better, more informed decisions.
Successful remote organizations understand innately that the biggest risk in becoming virtual is oversimplifying the transition. They are not accidental but have made intentional decisions in terms of how they communicate, collaborate and connect with each other.
Within the near future, it’s likely the internal infrastructure within a large number of companies will change in favor of increased remote working. While the complicated realities of this transition are considerable, diligent expert consultation can overcome them. Then, it is the job of leaders to successfully navigate the complexities in order to exploit the full potential of this new working landscape.