Flexible working: how virtual offices are changing the art of leadership

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With the rise of flexible working and virtual offices, the skills and attributes required of our leaders is changing. Here’s how to make sure your leaders are prepared.

The demand for virtual offices is growing, with the Office for National Statistics predicting that 50% of UK employees will be working remotely by next year.

Indeed, Airbnb’s ‘Future of Work’ report found that businesses embracing remote working stand to make the best hires.

Of the UK workers surveyed, 77% (and 84% of millennials) say that companies need to provide more remote and flexible options to attract talent.

Through remote working, businesses can benefit from lower costs achieved by reducing their office space, as well as improve productivity and employee retention.

We need to be mindful, however, that people working from home spend far less time with managers, and the geographical distance between employers and staff creates leadership challenges.

Building relationships

The best relationships are built through regular face-to-face contact, so getting to know employees with minimal physical interaction can be difficult.

Technological solutions can bridge geographical distances in business but communicating non-verbally, for example by email or messaging, is much harder. One of the reasons is a lack of non-verbal cues, which can leave leaders and employees guessing what their colleagues really mean.

A lack of personal conversations and opportunities to build relationships can damage morale as employees do not always feel as if they are part of a team.

Also, the perception of distant leaders can quickly deteriorate if employees see them as impersonable and distributers of instruction, rather than inspiring and helpful leaders.

Businesses need to adopt leadership models that reflect this decentralisation and digitisation of global business.

The key to overcoming this challenge is engineering personal time with employees, diarising this process if necessary.

Leaders should set aside time at the start of video conference or phone call to have a personal chat with workers - asking them about the highs and lows in their lives can be an effective opener. This will help leaders understand each team member’s individual needs.

While some people might value a personal conversation, others may appreciate professional support and advice.

In many ways, distant leaders can be akin to distant parents. It is often said that primary caregivers in separated couples get a raw deal - they carry the burden of responsibility for the child, while the other parent can spend quality time unencumbered with responsibility during weekends.

Distant leaders only spend minimal time in direct contact with employees, so it is important that they maximise the quality and focus of this time and become the ‘fun’ distant parent.

Enterprise leadership

One of the most prominent leadership models, though rapidly fading, is the archetypal inspiring and charismatic leader, particularly in industries such as banking and law.

In these industries it is often employees who work the longest hours and put their career above all else – the hero mentality - who succeed and get promoted.

One of the primary strengths of the ‘hero leader’ is their knowledge and inspirational capabilities; however, their ability to lead by example is severely blunted in scenarios where they are not physically present.

In virtual offices this model of leadership becomes largely obsolete. Businesses need to adopt leadership models that reflect this decentralisation and digitisation of global business.

Leaders can build positive brands by entrusting local managers to act as proxies on their behalf. 

The solution lies in ‘enterprise leadership’, which encourages a more collaborative form of leadership and aims to create a culture in which employees feel empowered to make local decisions based on the company’s goals, values and priorities.

In this model, leadership is dispersed into the organisation. Individuals have a clear understanding of their responsibilities, make their own judgments and operate more autonomously for the benefit of the enterprise with less instruction.

Virtual offices are the perfect environment to develop this type of thinking.

Enterprise leadership also encourages employees to visualise the needs of the business and act on issues unrelated to themselves personally. This could include identifying potential opportunities or problems before connecting the relevant people within the company.

Furthermore, the older members of generation Z are joining the workforce and have a different team and social ethic.

To them, top-down models of leadership are antiquated and the enterprise leadership philosophy of ‘anyone can lead’ better understood. Businesses need to prepare and adapt.

Distant leaders are perceived as brands rather than people

When employees know their leaders well, they see them as a person. If the leader is distant and employees do not have a personal connection with them, they might see them as a ‘brand’.

For example, famous business leaders such as Richard Branson, Richard Dyson and Bill Gates are often seen as extensions of their companies, rather than people. Their influence and brand of leadership is intrinsically linked to how their companies operate.

A traditional charismatic leader may be popular in the office and good at their job, but less effective when it comes to managing employees who work remotely.

The fact that distant leaders are viewed as brands is not necessarily negative. The brand can have a large influence on the company and its employees, however, so leaders must ensure the brand is positive.

Leaders can build positive brands by entrusting local managers to act as proxies on their behalf. These managers should be well versed in the company and leader’s ethos. This will help make the leader’s presence feel tangible throughout the company.

Social media can be a great tool for distant leaders in cultivating a personality that people can see from afar.

It offers them the chance to create a version of themselves over which they have editorial control, as well as showcase thought leadership and inspire employees remotely.

Flexible application of leadership skills

These are certainly not the only challenges facing leaders when it comes to virtual offices.

A traditional charismatic leader may be popular in the office and good at their job, but less effective when it comes to managing employees who work remotely.

The continuing expansion of digital networks and globalisation of business means more people are working remotely than ever before. To be effective, leaders need to be skilled at managing employees flexibly and adapting their styles to suit.

Interested in this topic? Read The problem with modern leadership: diversity, inclusion and the ‘hero’ complex.

About Tom Blower

Tom Blower

Tom is an MSc qualified leadership specialist with expertise as a communications coach and international leadership facilitator. He has designed and created fully equipped leadership faculties and organisational structures for global leadership and management training all around the world.


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