Shared Leadership Creates Effective Teams In A Remote World

With the Omicron variant likely to upend return-to-office plans, CEOs may want to consider three strategies for increasing the effectiveness of remote teams.

According to a new study by Future Forum, 76% of employees do not want to return to full-time office work. It seems employees are more than willing to trade in-person interaction for work time at home, fewer distractions, and no commute.

They are not alone. Senior leaders are embracing the productivity and performance gained from remote work.  In a survey from PwC, 83% of employers say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company. Many global companies including Amazon, SAP and (naturally) Zoom, are purposely recruiting for work-from-home positions. Forward-looking leaders in the c-suite and in corporate board rooms are past deciding “if” remote work will work. They are examining “how.”

For global companies to enjoy success or accelerate benefits, they should consider leadership approaches that conform to remote work settings. In the journey ahead, “shared leadership” should be a key ingredient in setting the course. New research [of which I am an author] in the Journal of International Management shows when collaborators are separated by geography, typical approaches to leadership are not as effective. Instead, “shared leadership,” which involves dividing up leader responsibilities across multiple people, was more helpful the more teams work virtually across locations.

Here are three strategies for CEOs to consider to increase effectiveness of remote work teams:

• Start low, go slow. A common axiom among physicians who are initiating new drug treatment for patients is “start low, go slow.” The same principle is also good counsel in rolling out new leadership approaches. Executives should consider rotating minor leadership tasks around the team until members are familiar with having different leaders; for example, Zoom calls could be run by a new team member each week, or one team member could lead on a particular set of tasks for a set period, then turn responsibility over to another member of a team for the same period. When shared leadership becomes more normative, executives can transition to larger business strategies that feature shared decision making.

• Consider how cultural orientation toward traditionalism could impact team effectiveness. Traditionalism—valuing the tried-and-true way of doing things over forging (potentially risky) new approaches—may understandably be viewed as a barrier to implementing shared leadership, especially in cultures that have traditionally used a more centralized approach to leading.  However, we found that when work is remote and teams are virtual (using electronic mediums such as email, teleconferencing and collaborative software to meet), this increases the comfort with shared leadership among traditionalistic members. Specifically, we found a significant three-way interaction among shared leadership, virtuality and traditionalism, accounting for 47% of team effectiveness. Simply put, shared leadership is more likely to result in team effectiveness if a team is also highly virtual, regardless of values oriented toward the status quo. In global teams that include countries with cultural orientation toward traditionalism, virtuality is a means of mitigating resistance to change.

Executives can use this insight early in the early team formation process. In situations when certain employees lean toward traditionalism, instituting a high degree of virtuality may help to increase team effectiveness.

• Recognize successes under linear leadership. Our research found that even when teams were given more free rein on leadership approaches—for example, they could share leadership, operate under a single, formal leader, or even remain “leaderless”—shared leadership emerged. Bottom line: those teams were more likely to be effective. Executives should validate these teams internally (within the team) and externally (throughout the organization) to support new management approaches.

Facing the decision to encourage shared leadership, results speak for themselves. Our examination of 56 aerospace engineering teams with sites in four different countries, all with high degrees of virtuality, found shared leadership contributed to teams’ efficiency, quality, cost-effectiveness, innovation, customer service, and overall effectiveness. Sharing leadership may be an uncomfortable change for traditional leaders who are used to a more hierarchical management approach (even CEOs). However, for organizations that have achieved hard-earned benefits from a high performance, agile workforce, there’s no turning back.


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