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Enabling digital, remote leadership

Building leadership capabilities to lead, engage and motivate in the remote digital environment bears many challenges including alignment with business strategy, company goals and organizational culture.

Envisioning successful digital leadership together and defining metrics to measure success are effective starting points. It’s also recommended to conduct a digital maturity assessment for leaders, focused on technical abilities, emotional intelligence and social abilities to identify where improvements are needed. This will help to identify and address leadership capabilities in building and maintaining remote relationships and trust, which are key to continued individual, team and organizational success in the remote digital environment.

Such challenges and a lack of organizational response can result in perceptions of reduced organizational support, thus decreasing employee job satisfaction and performance as well as impacting their mental and physical wellbeing. In addition, leaders may also experience a lack of direction and organizational guidance, particularly regarding performance management and providing wellbeing support for their employees. Moreover, they might encounter prioritization challenges between fostering a better employee experience in order to drive a great customer experience and managing organizational financial pressures. This can lead many to embody outcome-focused practices over relationship-building behaviors. Examples of this includes the cancelling and deprioritizing team and community building events and focusing only on work products.

How organizations can adapt

Businesses must take holistic action to reshape their processes, agree on digital remote ways of working, align expectations and upskill leaders and employees to ensure continued performance and engagement. The most successful way to adapt is to redesign the operating model and its levers to ensure an integrated, strategic response and mitigate the challenges caused by new ways of working.

This includes reviewing processes and government forums to ensure suitability for global remote working and implementing new cloud-based technology to allow for digital collaboration. Team structures and role descriptions require review to accommodate increasingly dispersed teams, together with performance metrics for teams and individual roles. This may require up-skilling on the new technology and ways collaborating.

Translating organizational culture into the virtual world

To determine how teams work together in the digital environment, businesses must adapt their organizational culture to the virtual context without losing organizational identity. This can be accomplished by acknowledging their employees’ daily interactions, stories, norms and values. Successful culture change is one of the top challenges for digital transformation and needs to start with a clear vision, assessment of the current culture and reinterpretation of organizational values as new remote practices and desired behaviors.

Leaders play a critical role in embedding new behaviors through role-modeling, which can drive supportive team subcultures and improve the employee experience in the remote environment. Fostering strong team bonds and commitment to one another is particularly important when working fully digitally because individuals often feel they are not part of a team–which can impact performance.

Leaders can more effectively manage relationships and expectations across the ecosystem to ensure continued performance and delivery to customers and clients. This alignment reduces the need for interpretation in terms of communication and cultural teamworking norms, and avoids typical challenges of remote working.

It’s importance to transform the organizational culture and adapt the operating model to the digital remote environment as an holistic organizational response. Only redesigning some levers of the operating model may result in a disconnect for leaders and employees, resulting in a loss of organizational commitment and decreasing performance outcomes. These changes must be communicated clearly and resonate with all stakeholders in order to demonstrate relevance, understanding and consistency with the organizational identity.

Leader and employee challenges impact the employee experience

Although many of us have worked remotely for the better part of two years, leaders and employees are still adapting to the fully digital environment. The following remain key challenges and are supported by recommendations:

Staying connected Staying human in the digital context is incredibly difficult. Given the increased number of meetings, most conversations are only purpose driven, making it difficult to build and maintain personal relationships and get to know new colleagues. Book check in meetings with design to foster connections.

Recognize that employees who did not frequently travel to an organization’s head offices before the pandemic may benefit from remote working and actually feel more connected with the organization and their leaders. Since so many more colleagues now work remotely, a shared need emerged for everyone to use digital communication tools. Rather counterintuitively, working remotely reduced the feelings of isolation for those who had previously worked remotely from the main offices and were unable to join social events. Remote digital working may help equalize engagement opportunities by introducing the same physical distance for all, reducing the likelihood of in-and-out groups at work and drive diversity and inclusion strategies.

Digital communication and collaboration Depending on an organization’s digital maturity, the last two years brought new challenges including how to collaborate purely digitally, which tools to use and how to communicate.

Considering the selection of relevant tooling and its successful deployment as prerequisite for effective virtual communication and collaboration, further technical issues around application downtime and reconfiguration when switching between video conferencing tools are very familiar to all of us.

This is particularly difficult in virtual workshops, as participants end up talking over each other due to lagging internet connections or don’t feel engaged to start with. Facilitators struggle with switched-off cameras, as a lack of body language and facial expressions means they need to rely on interpretations which can easily be incorrect if participants don’t know each other’s typical communications styles. New ways of working have to be defined and embedded, and relevant technologies have to be appropriated, which may require up-skilling to ensure seamless digital collaboration and communication.

Performance management and career advancement Leaders and employees need clear organizational expectations on how the virtual setting impacts performance standards and competency frameworks. Personalised goals, interesting roles and challenging projects continue to be effective motivators for employees, however, given the reduced visibility in the remote context, leaders may struggle to assess individual and team performance accurately.

This requires employees and leaders to promote individual and team success more broadly through various communication channels, which improves career advancement for colleagues not located in the main offices and/or more introverted colleagues. New hires can require leadership support in achieving upfront visibility across their broader teams to kickstart positive relationships.

Team building and development With fewer social events and classroom-based trainings, organization-driven team building and development has been limited. Individual leaders can still build effective teams and ensure continued collaboration and performance by doing things like selecting project team members based on trusted colleagues’ recommendations and through envisioning workshops for new teams to align on ways of working.

Although it has been more difficult for leaders to build and develop teams, those who have done it effectively have gained increased team commitment. In many cases employees have built strong team bonds in the absence of an overall organizational community and reduced organic interactions with anyone they do not directly work with. Inspirational leadership practices, such as setting shared goals, can help build team commitment and create a sense of a shared journey.

Engagement with the organizational ecosystem Employees may have found it challenging to stay engaged with their organizations while working remotely due to the reduced number of casual social interactions, a perceived lack of organizational appreciation and receipt of so many highly corporate communications during the Covid-19 pandemic. Leaders might have experienced challenges engaging with the external ecosystem of their organizations. Virtual industry conferences which replaced in person events can be more difficult to attend virtually due to competing priorities. Leaders have the opportunity to make employees more connected to things they may not have

Forming a holistic organizational response To combat these challenges and enable a smooth continuation of individual, leader and organizational performance, organizations need to take a holistic approach in responding to their new environment. Although the increase in remote working has been with us for over two years, many organizational responses are spot-solutions rather than adapting the organization as a whole for a way of working.

Organizations need to design and implement a new operating model, including a new organizational culture, adapted HR processes and relevant cloud-based technologies, to move into the digital remote era successfully. Aligning all stakeholders within the ecosystem on adapted ways of working and providing leaders with guidance and coaching on how to effectively lead, engage and motivate in this new environment is critical for sustainable success.


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