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Future of work trends: virtual leadership

As part of his series about trends in internal communications and digital collaboration, our associate partner Rik covers leadership in a hybrid setting.

Lacking leaders

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the Great Resignation – the growing trend of people quitting their jobs during and after the pandemic. I argued that this was fuelled by people’s changing perspectives and the increasing precariousness of work. But, as has always been the case, the main reason behind people quitting is, in fact, their manager. And managing well has become a whole lot harder in this hybrid world of work.

Now that many leaders don’t see their underlings every day in the office anymore, they need to learn new ways of managing. Or perhaps you could say that the pandemic has finally laid bare the inadequacies of their old-fashioned ways. According to Harvard’s Francis Frei and Anne Morriss, “leadership depends on how well you unleash the potential of other people”. This is especially true when you are not physically present as a manager, such as in a remote or hybrid setting.

Managing remotely does not come naturally to most leaders. They tend to be somewhat older and less digitally native (witness the Dutch prime minister only recently ditching his old Nokia phone). More importantly, they have made their careers in the old system of ‘pressing the flesh’.

Beat the bubbles

Sensing the dynamics in a team is particularly hard if people are not (often) sitting together anymore. Just as in the private sphere, cliques and information bubbles are prone to develop. Hairline cracks can grow into full-blown fractures.

To prevent this, leaders should focus on the higher, common goals of the team and the collaboration. Build a strong group identity but be careful not to force people to comply. Treat team members who work together at the office the same as less visible individuals who choose – or are compelled to – work remotely.

Digital doings

Leaders should translate their leadership methods to the digital sphere. Giving direction, inspiring people, sounding out opinions, commending people, and just having a chat: it can all be done online. Think of social platforms such as Yammer or Workplace, or a collaboration platform such as Teams.

Two blogs ago, I wrote about building trust by making sure you spend at least 10% of your time on personal interaction, especially online. Leaders are important role models here. This means not just posting serious news and work updates on internal channels or running through meeting agendas as efficiently as possible, but leaving room for personal chats, chance encounters, and some fun.

Also, as Nicholas Bloom of Stanford observes, leaders themselves should stick to the hybrid agreements they make with their teams. That may well mean they should also work partly from home, so as not to incentivize career tigers to come into the office on ‘remote days’ to cosy up to them.

Most importantly: leaders should consciously (re)structure how they communicate, give feedback, and build engagement in the new, partly or even mostly digital work environment.


Managing in a hybrid setting, with team members at least partly working remotely, requires leaders to change. They should be (made) aware of this and (helped to) rethink their ways.

In the next blog, I will recommend a useful approach for this: working out loud.

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