Leadership skills are rapidly changing this year. With more companies able to return to offices, they’re finding—that most people don’t want to. At least not like before. A late 2020 FlexJobs study showed that 96% of respondents want to maintain some form of remote work environment. How leaders manage these teams is going to evolve.
In a recent workshop, Virbela Co-Founder & President Alex Howland, Ph.D., guided and moderated sets of group discussions around the topic, Leadership in the Age of Work-from-Anywhere. Here are a few takeaways from their time together.
1. Everyone needs discipline—but it might not be the kind you think.
The idea that employees need to be watched or they won’t produce is pretty outdated. Most people want to do good work, care about their coworkers on a professional level, and don’t want to let anyone down.
But as more companies come around to the idea of tracking milestones or outcomes, employees are still worried about whether they’re spending enough time at their desks. Are they putting in the hours everyone else is? Some attendees say that when they checked in with their teams, people admitted to being a little anxious about taking breaks without express permission.
Working in a physical office allows what one workshop attendee calls “organic breaks.” These mental pauses could include a walk down the hall to meet a colleague or time spent moving your joints in front of a notice board in a common area.
Leaders can encourage their teams to practice a different kind of discipline—knowing when to take a break. Stand up and stretch! Eat lunch in your kitchen. Walk around the block or make a quick phone call.
Technology provides plenty of comfortable solutions for use throughout the day. Some people grab headsets and take calls outdoors. In a virtual office, organic breaks are built into the day, just like in a physical office.
Avatars can walk to meetings, spend time in social spaces, attend presentations in an auditorium, or watch a show on a stage. Campus customizations allow companies to set up areas for employees to relax, socialize, and talk about things besides deliverables.
Pro Tip: Keep trusting employees to do a good job and support them in their self-care.
2. Superficial work biases are giving way to merit-based evaluations.
Plenty of companies are finding that virtual offices bring quieter employees out of their shells. It’s a finding that has surprised professors or school administrators when interacting with normally reserved students, too.
But if virtual worlds let more people express themselves more comfortably, what happens to the visual cues we once took for granted in a physical office?
For instance, a smiling colleague is definitely engaged, but you can’t see them smiling as an avatar. You’ll need to look for other cues—primarily, where they’re looking and how they use their voice.
The natural result is that more employees come out of their shells and share their ideas, sometimes leading to innovations a company wouldn’t capture otherwise.
There’s another impact here, too: The superficial biases that drive ideas of who is successful and why are falling away.
At some organizations, superficial cues can distract people from feeling comfortable enough to be their best work selves. A top executive might wear a gleaming watch they eyed for years—but a mid-level manager just sees something they can’t afford. A parent might wish they had time for trendy hairstyles, but they were spending their morning with their kids.
Attendees weren’t talking about matters that would require human resources escalation. They just meant that, once they had a remote work solution, some of the insecurities we all have faded considerably.
Instead, how employees value—or evaluate—each other is changing. Now, how someone speaks or the ideas they share take center stage. Ideas are judged on merit, not kowtowing to the person with the nicest jacket.
Pro Tip: When employees have remote workspaces, they can build genuine confidence.
3. Tech solutions support diversity, flatter organizations, and better ideas.
The other major takeaway from the workshop was the idea that remote office solutions let employees build better systems and realize stronger outcomes.
This is partially due to feeling more confident at work. Feeling appreciated, trusted, and heard leads to big ideas. And innovative teams tend to create lift across an entire organization.
But it’s also due to the fact that a virtual office makes it easier to run a flatter organization. What does this mean? A flat organization may still have certain hierarchical elements: some employees report to others; leadership comes from a core team of proven executives or innovators.
The difference is that everyone becomes more approachable. It’s hardly scary to teleport to someone’s office if you know they’re free in Virbela. Making your way to a corner office with a receptionist up front, especially when you work in a cubicle, can be a little more intimidating.
A virtual campus eliminates the hierarchical feel that can take over a physical space sometimes. Offices are equally customizable. More importantly, so are avatars, so you can be yourself while connecting with others.
The result is more tightly knit teams, camaraderie between business units, and shared experiences at all levels of the organization.
Pro Tip: Leaders who encourage diverse interaction get stronger results and outcomes.
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