Whether remote work is a boon or a bust for businesses is one of the most relevant organizational debates today. The COVID-19 pandemic made telework common across numerous industries. The Pew Research Center estimates that 20 percent of working adults in nonessential jobs worked from home before the pandemic; now, 71 percent of nonessential employees work from home. However, as vaccination rates increase and more industries return to normal operations (at least for the time being), businesses such as Bank of America, Uber, and Apple have asked their employees to return to the office.
Supporters of this move claim that working in an office promotes productivity, encourages socialization, and helps management more effectively lead employees. Good leadership is often associated with face-to-face interaction. Strong leaders work closely with their employees, sometimes assuming that without continual supervision employees may become less productive. This is an issue of trust—if managers can’t supervise their employees, how can they trust them to complete the objectives of their jobs?
But many workers see telework in another light. Pew Research Center data also notes that 54 percent of nonessential workers would like to continue working from home after the pandemic. Workers’ exposure to telework has laid bare many of the pitfalls of working in an office, including long commutes, expensive real-estate prices in the cities where large companies like Apple build their campuses, the added costs of childcare, and the distractions and time-drains that office work entails. Harvard Business Review recently published results from a study that show some workers are more productive working from home—largely because they can manage their own time and cut out disturbances.
Post-pandemic, a new generation of workers may feel entitled to work from home because they know they can reliably accomplish their job responsibilities using the internet and teleconferencing software like Zoom. For companies that insist employees return to the office, this may mean an increase in resignations from employees who are confident they can find remote work elsewhere. Giving employees the option of remote or hybrid work may be essential to retaining talent, but what does this mean for leadership? Is it possible to lead a successful team over Zoom?
Considering the successes some workers have had working from home and the likelihood that remote work will continue to be commonplace even after the pandemic, cultivating remote leadership should be a priority for businesses. According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, the biggest obstacles managers face when leading remote teams are trust and lack of confidence. Many managers struggle to trust their employees from a distance, and they also struggle to see themselves as effective leaders when their leadership is mediated over a screen. This may be because some prevailing models of leadership, such as authoritarian leadership, teach managers to assume that employees need intensive guidance and supervision to complete tasks.
However, there is another style of leadership that may be better suited for remote work. Situational leadership, which stresses adjusting one’s management style to adapt to different contexts, teaches managers to be flexible and responsive in their management styles. Situational leadership also assumes employees can successfully navigate change and emphasizes trust as an essential component of the relationship between a manager and employee. Without trust, adapting to change is nearly impossible.
Curtis Rose, who has years of experience leading large international remote teams and teaches a class on leadership in Purdue University’s online communication master’s program, is an advocate for remote leadership. Rose notes, “Research shows that good leaders who are good communicators can effectively lead remote teams, and that remote teams can be more productive than in-office teams. Instead of forcing workers back to the office, leaders who do not trust remote teams to perform their jobs effectively should focus on honing their own leadership skills and abilities.”
Remote work is here to stay, and as a new generation of workers come to embrace telework, managers need to adapt their management styles to meet employees where they are. Trust, more than anything, will be essential to building successful teams now and in the future.