A noticeably powerful discussion at this year’s Talent Summit in Dublin, which took place on March 8-9, revolved around high-touch leadership for low-touch work.
The crux of the talk focused on leadership in today’s workplace, namely, how it has significantly evolved over the past three years. The panel featured business experts Lise Render Nielsen, People Partner at Lego; Darren Murph, VP of Workplace Design and Remote Experience at Andela; Leah Hollander, Head of L&D at NASA; and was mediated by Jim Birtwell, CEO of Future Talent Learning.
The discussion resonated because the importance of how a company develops its leadership and builds a culture of belonging is central to work today. This is particularly true of companies that have adopted the remote work model. For example, a leadership team that doesn’t transmit belonging to its employees will never empower its workforce to truly collaborate openly and honestly in such conditions.
Redefining what leadership means reinvigorates your workforce
Interestingly, the three panelists’ experience around developing leadership coincided with periods of stagnation or significant change at their respective companies. Nielsen, who kickstarted the discussion with a brief guided meditation, shared how Lego sales began to stall, and the company cut 8 percent of staff. To rejuvenate the workforce, leadership sought to answer the question – moving forward, how can we empower people through our leadership?
Rather than designing a model based on how the C-suite believed leadership should look, they instead decided to poll the entire organization. In doing so, they discovered common themes they had not previously considered. According to the bulk of their workforce, as per their investigative findings, leadership is about being brave, focused, and curious.
“We now define leadership as an act, not a supposition. Leadership is about encouraging everybody, every day,” stated Nielsen. Similarly, Hollander’s quest at NASA to rebuild a trusted leadership program came from stagnation and massive budget reductions. The company’s goal to redesign its leadership model is relatively new, as it capitalized on the onset of Covid-19 to fully explore remote work, training, and learning benefits.
Through this reinvention, NASA aims to develop today’s mid-level managers and junior leaders into the company’s future senior leaders. Communication was the foundation of their new leadership vision as they held focus groups at every NASA location. For Murph, his determination to evolve the concept of work accelerated when he joined Gitlab four years ago.
Gitlab’s goal was to become the world’s first remote-first company and dispel myths that remote work was too niche or meant you couldn’t scale. Murph used his experiences from the remote culture at Gitlab to help pave the way for the future of work at Andela as it adapted to the post-pandemic business world.
A culture of documentation is a superpower for remote teams
High-touch leadership prioritizes two-way communication, proactive and inclusive decision-making, and the ability to remain agile to adapt to unforeseen challenges. So, what do the panelists say the secret is to unlocking this management approach?
In a word, openness. In other words, building virtual workplaces. For instance, Murph believes the core step to creating a successful leadership strategy is building a knowledge retrieval system rather than exclusively depending on knowledge transfers. Through this method, rather than one worker depending on accessing knowledge from a specific co-worker, all employees can tap into a trusted data system regardless of time, location, role, or peer availability.
“The superpower of remote teams is a culture of documentation,” Murph said, citing that the entire history of humankind has been tracked through written artifacts. How businesses operate should be no different in his opinion. Using McDonalds as a metaphor, he explained that documentation and access to that documentation are why every Big Mac in the world looks and tastes the same, whether you’re in New York, Cape Town, or Tokyo.
Whether people realize it or not, clear and transparent communication is key to the success of every company. An effective communication program cultivates a healthy culture of trust and accountability where employees understand how they fit in with the company’s vision, and misunderstandings and conflicts can easily be avoided. Essentially, communication provides employees with the resources to both cope and thrive in the workplace.
As such, eliminating barriers to information is a crucial part of successfully designing a virtual workplace. For example, in the spirit of establishing an inclusive leadership environment, Lego built an open-source leadership playground. 800 employees signed up to develop their leadership skills.
The playground enabled workers to immerse themselves in Lego’s leadership vision and train to become a leader in this mold. This model is open for any employee to access, learn from, and contribute toward. Nielsen explained, “Culture is not just something you build, and then it’s there. It needs constant nurturing.”
Similarly, NASA built an in-house talent marketplace that allowed employees to post project listings, allowing them to cross-collaborate regardless of their team, department, location, or time zone. As Murph expressed, companies must realize that remote work can no longer be viewed as a benefit or a policy. Today, remote work is a product, meaning companies must strive to optimize its effectiveness.
This can be done by ensuring employees are connected to the right tools to efficiently work across locations, time zones, and cultures.
Remote work helps people reprioritize what’s important
To conclude the panel, Murph summarized why remote work is a significant development. He stated that when this period is studied, people won’t remember it as the future of work, but as the future of life.
“Remote work is a permission slip to evolve the ways of working because people have gotten a glimpse of what life can look like when they can optimize for something other than a commutable distance to work,” he said. “People can reprioritize where they live: near their parents, near a hospital specializing in their child’s illness, near a national park. They can choose air quality over smog and traffic. And work is the catalyst that enables these shifts,” Murph concluded.
Leaders that recognize the significant advantage of open and communication-driven leadership models will indeed thrive in the race to attract and retain the best talent the globe offers.
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