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. Author Karen Sobel Lojeski presents a new leadership model for today's virtual workforce.

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Hoboken, NJ — November 25, 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 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," 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.'"

Lojeski's book — which includes never-before-published interviews with executives from IBM, Merck, HP, Alcatel-Lucent, Crayola, Western Union and other organizations — explores the subject in detail.

Virtual distance is characterized by a combination of physical separation, technology mediation and disconnected relationships, she explains. 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," asserts Lojeski. "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," says Lojeski. "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," says Lojeski. "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," she adds. "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," says Lojeski. "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," she adds. "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 Distance 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," says Lojeski. "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," says Lojeski. "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."