Leadership For a Networked World
The combination of technological change and the imperatives of working through pandemic driven lockdowns have radically shifted what we think of as legitmate ways to organise work, motivate staff and create value. To think, as many managers do, that as vaccination programmes tame the impact of Covid-19 we will return the world of work that we new before is sheer fantasy.
Just two years prior to the onset of the pandemic I, as VP-HR, had been struggling to convince senior managers of a technology services company that we should allow more people to work from home. Line managers resisted arguing that they couldn’t control people and would lose their grip on work flows. Some argued that their staff were young and couldn’t be trusted to work from home. Whilst the CFO was clear that it presented too many risks of confidential company or client data leaking out. Alongside the embattled CEO we tried to persuade both managers and the global Board that it made sense. In the end it was deemed too risky and challenging.
With the announcement of a national lockdown suddenly managers had no choice and, of course, they have made it work. Whilst this has caused those of us that tried previously to smile somewhat smugly, the reality is that no one in that organisation believes either that staff will accept to go back to the working practices that existed before the pandemic, or that they should. In many organisations productivity has grown. Perhaps even more interestingly, in a knowledge economy, social restrictions and new working practices have led to a rise in creativity and innovation.
Instead of simply waiting for instructions, staff have often had to find solutions for themselves. In so-doing they have inevitably questioned the way that the challenges that they face are defined. Best practices tend not to work well in a world turned upside down. Not only have people looked for ways to shortcut cumbersome processes, they have done so by networking horizontally across organisations, often with minimal reference to vertical reporting lines. De facto organisations have not only become more distributed, they have become flatter, as they adopt what we might describe as a more federal forms of power and structure.
Leadership of federal organisations is likely to be very different to the linear process driven world that characterised at least the operational divisions of companies prior to the pandemic. First of all, as noted by Taylor & Bronstone (2019) value creation and capture is increasingly a function of facilitating a digital network. Second, such processes tend not to work very well using tech platforms to connect up distributed and remote teams. Third, people have got used to the freedom of organising their own time and working environment and are not likely to want to hand full control back.
It is true that many people have found working remotely a lonely experience and miss the social aspects of working in offices. However, this does not mean that many people would like to return to traveling to the office every day. More likely is some form of what is becoming known as hybrid working and organisation is likely. Where teams come together for regular meetings, or when collaboration would benefit from a face-to-face experience. For example, one lesson from the pandemic has been that learning and development does not work as well on-line as face-to-face. For whilst the competencies and knowledge can be delivered with tech platforms such as Zoom, Teams and so forth, the shortage of emotional and social interaction limits concentration and, despite protestations from universities, the inspirational element to learning clearly does matter.
Hybrid, or federal, working environments self evidently will not need as much office space and we are going to see a rise in hot desking and shared office spaces as staff resistance to a return to business as usual converges with the realisation, by companies, of how much money can be saved by reducing their office requirements. Equally, the familiarity that has been gained with tech platforms as an effective way of working across distance will reduce the need to travel. More interestingly its impact upon recruiting possibilities will be huge if proximity to a company’s office is no longer a critical factor.
One point noted by Morgan (2020) is that there will need to be consistency about when staff are expected to be in the office and when not. Otherwise those willing to come in will benefit from their increased visibility to the detriment of those working from home. Although many people do seem to think that being visible is a career development track, visibility is clearly not the same thing as performance.
Going forward leaders will be more like curators of networks than directors of process lines. This is not the same as ‘agile’ working, which assumes a measure of creative emergence in projects that is not true in many parts of organisations. Furthermore agile methodologies simply lack the predictability required for much operational delivery. The challenge facing leaders will be to provide that predictability and order without the power and proximity that they have been used to. To do so leadership will increasingly become more about flat teams that own more responsibility, where more value is accorded to collaboration than the competitive instincts that managers nurtured in their executives previously. The old world of Taylorist carrots and sticks really isn’t going to cut it and those who try to re-invent it, as some will, are doomed to be left behind. On the other hand without a measure of assertiveness, management risks becoming liking herding cats as everybody does their own thing.
For some, this new world of collaboration, based upon commitment to innovation and not just compliance with process will be empowering and exciting. However, in my experience, managers like the power that they accumulate and many will feel its loss deeply. However, as both the external market and the internal operating space both become more networked ambitious executives will have little choice than to learn to cope with managing uncertainty as the new normal.
Taylor A. & Bronstone A. (2019) People, Place & Global Order: Foundations of a Networked Political Economy. London: Routledge.
Morgan K. (2021) ‘Why in-person workers may be more likely to get promoted’. BBC, March 8th.