Is remote leadership an oxymoron? Making the ‘Future of work’ work by Stefan Güldenberg

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Andrew Hill Management Editor, Financial Times

Donna Flynn VP, Global Talent at Steelcase
Guy Ben-Ishai Head of Economic Policy Research, Google
Tammy Erickson Leadership Advisor; top ranked management thinker, T50
Ashok Krish TCS Global Head, Digital Workplace

Even when it seems that old ways of working are being upended, evolving businesses, as Drucker pointed out, are always a mix of continuity and change. How will remote and office work settle into a new balance and what does this mean for leadership?

On  average almost 200 participants

What we do not miss about our offices/workplaces

Andrew Hill: Introductory survey: What do you NOT miss about the office/workplace:

  • I do not miss seeing my boss in person (43%)
  • I do not miss the office at all (32%)
  • I do not miss networking in person (18%)
  • I do not miss seeing my colleagues in person (7%)

Is remote leadership an oxymoron?

Donna Flynn: Leading remotely is not a contradiction, but it is different and harder. You need three skills in order to lead successfully: Being intentional, being clear and being able to connect with your team.

Guy Ben-Ishai: By definition leadership is about being present. If you are not present you cannot lead. Distance makes leadership more difficult. On the other hand, leadership is about managing uncertainty and risk which in the current pandemic remoteness is more of a problem for leadership than remoteness. So today there is no contradiction – remote leadership has virtually become a reality.

Drucker Forum 2020

Tammy Erickson: Leadership is expressed in the way you focus time and attention. The successful leader is good at picking out the activity that deserves that focus. In the old leadership world remote leadership could be seen as an oxymoron because you had to see or monitor people to manage efficiency and standardization. In the new leadership world leadership is about thinking and imagination. Creating the right environment for that does not require physical presence.

Ashok Krish: Many people enjoy working remotely, e.g. developers. Working remotely is not a challenge for senior leaders who have always worked away from their head offices. It is a challenge for mid- and junior management, because people need to learn new rituals for virtual work. Zoom fatigue and too many zoom meetings to be productive. Example of effective rituals for online meetings: Create templates for certain kinds of meetings, working out loud, virtual coffee breaks, one-to-one chats. Act human online, as you would in the real world: How are they, how are their families …

Flynn: Spend the first 10 minutes of a virtual meeting in informal talk. Share family pictures, stories, design a virtual listening tour …

What is the main task of remote leadership?

Erickson: We have a strong bias to efficiency and productivity as a legacy from the past. What we now need are four new leadership roles: Disrupt, intrigue, connect and engage people in order to create the right environments for human interactions. Remote leadership is not a question of age but of mindset.

Ben-Ishai: It is really difficult to unlearn things we are comfortable with: What will we do in a couple of months/years when half of us want to go back to the office and the other half want to stay at home?

Erickson: It is the wrong question. Companies should not worry where the work is done. Treat your employees as adults: Ask them to get their work done. If they want to do it in the office, fine; if they don’t want to come to the office, also fine. As with the question what time should you come into the office, does it matter? We are adults!

What is the future role of the office?

Krish: Why do we work the way we do? And why are the offices the way they are? This is not a natural given.

Flynn: The office will become even more important for building culture and a sense of identity. But it is no longer the only place. Create an ecosystem of workplaces and give employees control over choices: Then they will do their best work. Culture is about aligning on shared goals, values, purpose, behaviors. Space shapes behavior!

Erickson: Carry out informal network mapping and coach those who are isolated. Over time we will increasingly pay for outcome. How much work are you wanting to do? Emotional bonds with your organization will occur naturally even if you are an external contractor and not fully employed. We don’t have yet the social safety nets in place that support the future of work.

Ben Ishai: Smaller organizations can maintain a culture more easily than large ones. If you lose your culture you lose your identity.

Breakaway groups: Non-digital aspects in regard to remote leadership and work:

Flynn: Being transparent, but the leadership challenge is how and when? Stage room in front of the camera, is that authentic and real to others watching? When is the right time to be online, when offline? When and how do you make people come together? Three design elements for on-site workshops (twice a year): We need to build something together; we need to have a lot of social time; we need to learn something together.

Ben-Ishai: Googlers really like the office space they are working in. Recognize individual preferences. Danger of missing synergies and tacit knowledge resulting in miscoordination when people no longer meet in the office.

Erickson (responding to Ben-Ishai): Not the leader’s problem: You need to educate or get rid of them. Treat them as adults: “I don’t manage your time but the quality of the output”.

Krish: Not all work can be measured by outcomes. Slackness is not a problem of remote work – it is even easier to detect than in the real office. Not every culture is a good culture. Get rid of bad habits in remote work. In addition, offices reduce diversity, excluding many people, e.g. women having to care for small children, people living in remote locations … So culture can evolve faster (it is much harder to change culture in a physical than in a remote workplace).


Very interactive and lively plenary. The topic moves us all. Remote leadership is only an oxymoron for those who are stuck in an outdated understanding of leadership of command and control. Making the “Future of Work” work is much more a cultural challenge of changing mindsets and leadership behavior than a technical one.

About the author:
Stefan Güldenberg is Vice President Practice of the European Academy of Management and President-elect of The New Club of Paris, a think tank and agenda developer for the knowledge economy.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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