RISMEDIA, November 23, 2009—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 e-mail the person in the next cubicle than speak to him).
According to Karen Sobel Lojeski, 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,” says Lojeski, author of the new book Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century. “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% 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,” she adds. “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.” 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.
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.