Going the (Virtual) Distance: Three Keys to Successfully Leading in a Virtual Workforce World

More and more people are working virtually. Problem is, the old-school leadership models that once worked in America’s organizations no longer cut it in an environment in which coworkers type instead of talk and rarely see each other face-to-face. Here’s a new leadership model for today’s virtual workforce.

Just 20 years ago, “going to work” meant waking up, getting dressed, jumping in the car, and driving to a physical location where you interacted, face-to-face, with your boss and coworkers all day. In 2009 it might mean stepping across the hall to your home office and getting on a videoconference with a boss you haven’t seen in years—if, indeed, you’ve ever met her.

Yes, everything about work has changed.  It’s gone from a permanent, flesh-and-blood world of people who know their coworkers well—from where they live to how many kids they have to how they drink their coffee—to a transient one where the voices on the phone may change week to week and project to project. (Even inside an office coworkers are more likely to email the person in the next cubicle than speak to him.)

The implications of these changes are staggering. In fact, they require a whole new leadership model.

The virtual workforce in the U.S. has exploded. In fact, according to the International Data Corporation, the mobile workforce in the U.S.—which has the largest percentage of mobile workers in the world—is set to become 73 percent of the nation’s workforce by 2011.
The problem is that while the way we work has changed, the way leaders lead those workforces has not. In fact, many organizations are still using leadership models that were created almost a century ago. As a result, businesses worldwide are suffering from what I call Virtual Distance.

My book, Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-42280-9, $29.95)—which includes never-before-published interviews with executives from IBM, Merck, HP, Alcatel-Lucent, Crayola, Western Union, and more—explores the subject in detail.

Virtual Distance is characterized by a combination of physical separation, technology mediation, and disconnected relationships. These dynamics lead to a psychological separation that builds over time, leading to negative effects on productivity, innovation, and trust between employees and groups of organizations.

In fact, studies show that when Virtual Distance is relatively high, innovation falls by over 90 percent and competitive advantage is severely impacted, while trust and job satisfaction decline by over 80 percent. On-time/on-budget project performance suffers by over 50 percent and can cost a company millions, and goal and role clarity decline by over 60 percent.

Rapidly evolving changes in the way that we work have led to the need for a new model of leadership. Leading the Virtual Workforce presents the Virtual Distance Leadership Model, which helps organizations motivate and inspire employees who are geographically, culturally, and functionally dispersed. It supplies leaders with the new behaviors and skills they need in order to reduce Virtual Distance and improve employee productivity and satisfaction.

The Virtual Distance Leadership Model consists of three core competencies for leading today’s virtual workforce: Creating Context, Cultivating Community, and Co-Activating New Leaders.

To fully understand the Virtual Distance Leadership Model and why and how it works, one must first understand these core competencies. Read on for more about the core competencies and how you can use them to bring greater productivity and overall success to your organization.

Creating Context. What is meant by context? It is everything around us that helps us to understand who we are, where we are, and what our role is. Context is the foundation upon which we derive meaning from what other people say. In the past, the requisite context needed to do a good job was readily available. Coworkers knew about the personal lives of their colleagues. They saw each other every day. With that information, they could cipher who thought what about work as well as politics, family, and other important notions in life. But today it’s not so simple. Work is commonly done in temporary projects where people come and go, and organizational affiliations change with each new project or merger or downsizing.

While it might be easy, neat, and logical to think that we don’t need to know each other to stay on task, that’s just not the case. That kind of magical thinking has led many leaders astray. When we are blind to others’ contexts—their surroundings, the way they think, and more, we simply do not operate with maximum effectiveness. So one of the things that leaders need to do most is to help individuals and teams in the virtual workforce see the context that is otherwise invisible. They do this by understanding how to use technology to communicate effectively and by serving as a human anchor, or constant, to help everyone stay connected.

Cultivating Community. The word “community” is not one normally associated with corporate leadership. But today as organizations have become flatter and more matrixed, the ability to “recruit” people to work on projects or other assignments has become an important aspect of leadership. One way that effective leaders do this is by building diverse communities of people who have the skill and commitment to help, even though this may fall outside their prescribed organizational roles.

A lot of what happens to get work done in organizations today is voluntary. Organizational psychologists refer to these activities as organizational citizenship behaviors, because they help maintain the growth and sustainability of the organization in ways that are not role-specific. Examples of community-building activities include mentoring others, taking on a project to build a wiki, and acting as a coach.

Leaders can create a sense of community that activates a kind of virtual team spirit and produces extraordinary behaviors—even among the most dispersed set of workers. Today, great leaders who create cooperative and constructive communities, fostering community commitment across boundaries, are making many innovative products and finding ways to leverage collaboration. They are believers in community development as a potent path on which to gain insight and drive revenue.

Co-Activating New Leaders. Many of the most successful virtual workforce leaders recognize and internalize a simple reality: Their leadership alone is not enough when it comes to large, networked organizations consisting of people who sit within the bounds of traditional organizational structures but who are also part of the new virtual workforce. These leaders know that to succeed they may need to draw on people who work for other organizations, or for themselves, or who simply gravitate toward the organization’s orbit from time to time.

Unlike models that espouse the leader as the singular transformative figure, today’s leaders co-opt others to make things happen—putting themselves aside at times, asserting their authority at other times, but recruiting others to lead at all times. Being a co-activating leader involves motivating and inspiring others to do something for the organization without the benefit of any reward, and most of the time, without the benefit of establishing face-to-face contact.

Co-activating leaders build greater trust, higher levels of satisfaction, and better citizenry behavior. In addition, higher levels of motivation to volunteer time, energy, and resources to forward organizational goals are gained.

Naturally, there are additional characteristics that enable the core competencies of the Virtual Dist
ance Leadership Model. One critical aspect is techno-dexterity—essentially, understanding technologies and knowing what kind of communication technology to use and when. Because they are so essential in helping leaders build communities, understanding social networks and how to use them is another critical element. And finally, authenticity is key.

Today’s workforce is very different from the workforce of 20 or even 10 years ago. Authentic leaders are not only genuine, but also transparent. This allows them to create a level of trust and commitment that is essential in leading a multicultural, multi-generational global workforce.

In the 21st century business world, the Virtual Distance Leadership Model is the big bang for the buck that people intuitively respond to. The model transforms organizations so that they are much more successful at increasing financial performance and setting the stage for competitive advantage in the new world of work.

About the Author:
Karen Sobel Lojeski, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Technology and Society in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Karen is also the CEO of Virtual Distance International, an advisory firm specializing in leadership and innovation in the new millennium of virtual workplaces.

About the Book:
Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-42280-9, $29.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.

For more information, visit www.virtualdistance.com.

The Microsoft Executive Leadership Series, produced in partnership with John Wiley & Sons Publishing and Microsoft Corporation, provides business leaders with inspiring new thoughts to help them form solid business strategies and create world-class, successful organizations.

Founded in 1807, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., has been a valued source of information and understanding for 200 years, helping people around the world meet their needs and fulfill their aspirations. Wiley’s core business includes scientific, technical, and medical journals; encyclopedias, books, and online products and services; professional and consumer books and subscription services; and educational materials for undergraduate and graduate students and lifelong learners. Wiley’s global headquarters are located in Hoboken, New Jersey, with operations in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Canada, and Australia.

The Company’s Web site can be accessed at http://www.wiley.com. The Company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbols JWa and JWb.