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Future of work

Leadership in a digital age

What’s lost in the era of distributed work – and how to bring it back.

Digital technologies make modern-day work more flexible in relation to time, location, structures and processes. Telework, geographically distributed teams and hot-desking, or modular office design, are de rigueur at companies large and small. They are made possible by rapid enhancements in cloud computing, audiovisual communication – from instant chat to conferencing facilities – and electronic devices. The ubiquity of smartphones means staff can increasingly work from anywhere.

The benefits are clear: remote team members can get advice and guidance faster; bespoke groups can be assembled to solve specific problems, regardless of where they are based; and greater flexibility helps employees whose personal circumstances require it, such as those with caregiving responsibilities.

But we are also beginning to understand the unforeseen downsides. Some workers complain of isolation and loneliness. Our working environment has potentially become less personal, less social and more difficult to share knowledge in. Sharing a physical location enabled those serendipitous interactions that are harder to achieve in a remote or distributed organisation. Some workers are even seeing digital communication technologies as constraining rather than enabling.

Can organisations leverage the efficiencies and agility brought by digitally mediated communications without experiencing the potential downsides? Answering this question requires a renewed appreciation of how the dynamics of leadership are changing in the digital age – and how leaders can more skilfully adapt their role to the modern work setting.

The tyranny of freedom

Organisations increasingly rely on flexible work arrangements such as cross-functional collaboration, job-sharing, flexi-hours and distributed teams. Some groups meet regularly via a daily ‘stand-up’. Others might convene weekly, and some not meet in person at all. Whatever the approach, digital communication technologies of varying richness – from chat platforms to video conferencing – enable communication, co-ordination and collaboration across locations and time zones, facilitating organisational globalisation. However, remote communication can create challenges like isolation, disconnection and uncertainty among team members. Tensions can emerge between individual- and team-level work. Leaders, who traditionally manage such divergences and frictions, must adapt.

A recent study, collecting results from a decade of research, shows that effective leaders build deep and trusting relationships with their employees. How can this be done when communication takes place largely via digital means? Leader–member relationships rely heavily on good-quality and frequent communication, which can be compromised in digital settings.

As Emily Ackroyd and Hazel Hobbs, directors for strategy and engagement for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), state: ‘Digital leadership is not about understanding specific technologies, it is about understanding people.’ Leadership skills – offering vision, communicating purpose and providing individualised support and intellectual stimulation – are even more critical when it comes to connecting people who are not physically proximate. Distance prevents impromptu meetings due to time differences and the inability to ‘knock on a leader’s door’. Traditionally, a leader’s skills have positively influenced outcomes like staff engagement, task performance, job satisfaction, self-efficacy, commitment, loyalty and trust. In distributed settings, members can find it harder to be inspired by, or relate to, their leader.

While flexible hours and locations mean face-to-face communication is less convenient than digital communication, leaders still need to build trust and relationships whether team members are located in the same place or not. Since leadership skills from the ‘analogue’ age may not translate well digitally, as they rely on communication frequency and quality, how can leaders foster effective teams and build relationships in this new digital age?

Adapting leadership for the digital workplace

How team members perceive their leaders’ behaviour determines the quality of their relationship, and also affects how committed and motivated they are at work, as well as how long they will ultimately stay at an employer. Typical positive signals that inspire and uplift team members, like offering support and advice, vision sharing and instilling confidence, are harder for leaders to transmit via digital communication tools. Likewise, reliance on digital technologies can prevent workers from physically speaking to leaders to obtain quick, informal feedback.

Verbal and written communication are not seen as having the same impact, even when the message being communicated is the same. This can result in a communication gap when team members who do not feel they can candidly communicate with their leader in more formal written communication fail to interact at all. In teams that are virtual and remote, where leaders are not seen and interacted with in person on a daily basis, leaders may be perceived as less relevant and their influence can weaken.

The good news is that, in general, the more interpersonal skills leaders have, the more likely they are to build good-quality relationships with their team members, whether they share office space with them or not. This means that developing soft skills, always critical to leadership, and knowing how to deploy them in a digital context, is increasingly important.

Why are leadership skills harder to convey in a digital environment?

Many leadership behaviours, such as articulating a vision and expressing individual consideration and confidence, rely on extensive, high-quality communication and can be lacking in teams that regularly rely on digital communication. Nurturing high-quality relationships can be challenging for leaders given the lack of material, social and symbolic cues, hindering a sense of ‘belonging’ among staff. In other words, isolation and dis-identification, caused by a lack of physical interaction, create a new management challenge as leaders have less day-to-day influence – and receive less information about their team members’ progress.

In general, teams benefit from more rather than less communication, even via digital means, but the media richness of the digital tool used will affect the quality of that communication. For instance, leaner tools like email and chat should be used for simpler task co-ordination. For more complex and nuanced engagements, like problem-solving and negotiation, richer media such as video conferencing or face-to-face meetings are more effective.

The more virtual the team, the more important it is for a leader to engage in team activities. They should think carefully about the frequency and mode of communication. In a media-rich context like video conferencing meetings, it is easier for team members to communicate effectively and forge a common understanding without the guidance of an influential leader. In these situations, leaders may benefit from simply facilitating the interaction. Conversely, when media richness is low (for example, where the team operates primarily via email), leaders should interact more perceptibly by clarifying assignments and defining routines. They can also take an active role in initiating group communication, idea discussion and problem-solving. By displaying a multi-dimensional digital presence and interest, leaders can stay closer to staff and present themselves as significant team members making a valuable, guiding contribution.

The quality of written language, such as elaborative ability and expression complexity, also matters for leaders communicating digitally. Team members look positively on those with strong written communication skills, something that can be improved with relative ease. Communication can be improved at both firm and individual level. For instance, leaders can ensure that a proper introductory meeting is conducted face-to-face at the outset of a team project; early leader–follower interactions are important for subsequent relationship development. They can also set up optimal communication routines – too much interaction hinders productivity, while too little leads to information gaps, mistakes, inefficiencies and ‘crossed wires’. Finding the middle ground is an essential management art for the 21st-century business.

Various types of leadership communication training are available for organisations wishing to emphasise relationship-building in digital settings, although in reality this is largely overlooked. One focus should be the soft skills of effective communication, which helps leaders use language effectively, and teaches them how to foster a learning climate by using good-quality enquiry and advocacy, both orally and in writing. Second, leaders should be trained to master different digital channels. When training leaders working in remote, digitally connected teams, firms should assess the type of tools used (for example, video conferencing versus email and chat platforms) and the level of interdependence required for the team to work successfully, and then respond with effective training to enable the leader to perform their function well.

Digital technology is transforming modern work in terms of pace, scale and complexity. The excitement brought by the speed, efficiency and low cost of digitally mediated communications has, however, been offset by growing awareness of the drawbacks of remote communication. Cohesion and alignment around a shared vision are harder to forge in digital environments. In the past, strong leadership enabled a firm to create a collective greater than the sum of its parts. Today, leaders need to achieve the same goals using digital tools. Mastering these new communication tools, while recognising their unique benefits and drawbacks, can help leaders build and maintain strong relationships with team members in these new digital work environments.

By Prof Dr Sut I Wong, BI Norwegian Business School