Leading the way forward

I originally started this particular post with my reaction to an interview with a current tech CEO who I heard on CNBC, the business news channel. He talked about his company's corporate culture and the requirement for all of his employees to be "100% back in the office." Ironically, his TV interview was done during the workday from his own personal home office, because he wanted to squeeze in a workout that morning.

CEOs do what CEOs do, I suppose.

I'm really more interested in how leaders work outside the special bubble that is the executive suite. What are the leadership lessons here for aspiring leaders and leaders without formal titles, and for first-line and second-line managers?

As a leader, you have to be consistent in what you say and how you act. If you want the people on your team to listen respectfully to other people's ideas, you should do the same. If you want people to have a good work-life balance, then you should model that behavior. If you want to have a little flex-time to squeeze in a workout, you should be supportive of the people on your team when they do the same.

Ideally, as a leader you should proactively model what you hope for on your team. If you want your team to collaborate with each other and share what they know rather than hoard their skills in order to compete and beat others, you'll have to show that collaborative behavior first. There will be plenty of people still modeling competition as a way to motivate their teams. Your example will be needed to turn the tide.

As a leader, you also have to accommodate work practices outside of your own personal experience. It reminds me of the time a leader offered a very expensive week's rental for a two-seater sports car to the top sales rep for the quarter. The winner: a dad with twin toddlers who he took to daycare every morning. What the leader valued – a hot sports car – was of no use to that employee. What might be valuable to an employee was never considered.

The best leaders recognize everyone's needs, from breastfeeding mothers, to people who care for elderly parents, to people who have same-sex partners and need health care in the family. Excluding people from the mix because of a lack of empathy for their individual needs is short-sighted at best, and leads to poorer products and a lack of innovation.

Right now, leaders everywhere are working to implement and refine policies around returning to an office and working from home. The last two years have shown that work-from-home is possible for many employees. But what happens from here?

I hope that vaccinations, mask-wearing, testing, and continued vigilance will eventually make it possible to get past the COVID issues. With the new Omicron variant, I am now hearing regularly of companies that are postponing back-to-the-office moves until March 2022 or later. Hopefully, you've already been having discussions with your team about how this will work in the longer term.

In the case of working-from-home, certain work – nursing, manufacturing, fire fighting – clearly can't be done remotely.  The physical presence of people doing the work is a requirement for the job. But knowledge-based work, which currently accounts for around 60% of the US labor force, often can be done via digital connection.  

What leadership lessons can we apply to the work-at-home dilemma?

You will be leading by your example. If you go into the office every day, your people will likely follow that lead, even if there is no formal requirement to do so. They will likely even "choose" the same days you do. Regardless of their own personal preferences, your actions are an overriding signal of "how we do things here."

If, for example, your organization's objective is to support a hybrid workplace because it is better for employee retention, engagement, and motivation, you have to support that objective with your own behaviors. If you send a conflicting message by your own actions, you won't get the benefits you are seeking.

Don't set policy or practice based solely on your own work style and preferences. You may be an extrovert, and the extroverts I talk with are really excited about getting back to the office. But many people worry about carrying the virus home to their families and prefer to avoid offices. Others are looking to save a long commute a couple of days a week and getting back into a better personal balance. Introverts actually may prefer working at home. Don't make this a decision based just on your own preferences.

This is a great time to run more experiments. Rather than just having a single definitive policy, consider how you could run experiments with different practices. If you have already started a different work-at-home schedule, make an assessment of how that has worked so far.

Be sure to ask questions like "How was work better when we were all working at home offices?" or "What part of our remote work culture should we keep when we are working differently?" Most leaders are very quick to think about how we get to the way it was before, but much less thoughtful about the parts that were better during the (temporary?) times we we've been working differently.

As a leader, you have to consider the interests of the team, your organization, and the individuals involved. Although we were essentially forced into a giant experiment with home offices (which actually worked fairly well), our next steps and decisions are more in our control. As a leader, this is your chance to model the way forward. Take this time to determine the next experiments your team can use as you continue to build the best workplace possible.

Thanks as always for reading.  

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA