Recently I wrote a blog post called Overcoming objections to alternative work arrangements. A reader named Sharon made some interesting additional points about why telecommuting causes heartburn for many managers: “Every management position has power. Some power is visible in symbols such as corner offices and floors of open cubicles with workers answering phones and talking into headsets. Maybe we just need to figure out a good way to give managers a power symbol for how many people they have working for them… kind of like the power bars on the phone.”
As I was thinking about that, I came across a blog post on Harvard Business Publishing’s site called Grooming Leaders to Handle Ambiguity by Scott Anthony. Anthony says that in most companies, size matters, and therefore we look to give our up-and-coming leaders bigger territory as they move up the ladder. He asks whether this is the right approach in a changing world where complexity and ambiguity are increasingly the factors that provide challenge. “I’ve never run a multi-billion dollar company, but I’m willing to bet the difference in complexity between managing $1 billion and $10 billion in revenues, or 1,000 versus 10,000 employees isn’t that great. In other words, giving up-and-comers more responsibility helps them to refine skills they already have, when what they need to do is to develop the capability to flexibly respond to unanticipated challenges.” Anthony proposes giving star leaders new geographic markets and new business models rather than bigger territories.
Is that the answer—to change our paradigm rather than search for alternative power symbols based on size? Another recent HBR blog post reinforces the idea from another perspective. Whitney Johnson in Venus May Be Rising but Don’t Neglect Mars says that the danger inherent in the rise of female power in the workplace is that women rise by emulating the way men wield their power. “Is there the risk,” she asks, “of a turnabout attitude of ‘now it’s my turn to bully you'”? Johnson hopes not, because successful corporations are finding ways to harness the unique strengths of both men and women, including the “feminine strengths of interpersonal connectedness, care, sensitivity, and responsibility to people.” That’s a concept that sounds to me a lot more like ambiguity and complexity than size-equals-power.
Returning to our remote worker issue, our new paradigm would look like this: status would be accorded to the manager who most successfully handles the complexity of building a high-performing team despite the challenges of dispersed work spaces and hours. The metrics used to measure this success wouldn’t be a whole lot different than the metrics we typically use: How much did they get done? How fast? With what quality? What customer feedback? The difference would be that senior leadership would emphasize the fact that it got done with a virtual team.
I hope to get some feedback on these thoughts, because I’d like to take it further! How do we change the paradigm? And what would be the visible symbols of this new power? Or am I barking up an impossible tree?